School shrinking, folks thinking


Oysterponds kindergarten teacher Jenny Schoenstein guides a student during a writing lesson last Tuesday morning. In the face of decreasing enrollment, district residents met Monday night to discuss possible plans for the future, including consolidation.

Oysterponds, the tiny Orient school district that this year will educate just 84 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, is addressing the elephant roaming its classrooms: whether consolidation with another district is necessary.

The school held its first public session on its future Monday night, and more than 75 residents showed up for a 90-minute discussion of the district’s options for reorganization. A second session is tentatively scheduled for early December.

This year’s enrollment is the lowest on record except for 1965, the first year the school was open. Some 13 families with school-age children moved out of the district in the past two years for financial reasons, said Oysterponds Superintendent Stuart Rachlin at Monday’s meeting.

At $16,457 per student, the Oysterponds district has one of the highest per-pupil cost averages on the North Fork, but because it also has the second lowest number of students (only New Suffolk is smaller), its tax rate is also the second lowest on the North Fork. Taxpayers in the Oysterponds district will pay $36.50 per $100 of assessed valuation this year, while taxpayers in Mattituck-Cutchogue, which has the highest tax rate, pay $78.73 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Dr. Rachlin said he hoped the district develops clear plans for its future this winter so that it can incorporate them into the next school year’s budget. The school will begin preparing the 2011-12 budget in March 2011.

Though Dr. Rachlin said the district was analyzing the tax impact of consolidation and did not yet have concrete figures, he predicted that Oysterponds taxes would go up if the district consolidated with Greenport. He also felt the hometown feel of an elementary school close to home would be lost.

Among the other proposals he outlined were bringing Oysterponds seventh- and eighth-graders, who currently attend Greenport School, back to Oysterponds, the addition of a pre-K class and switching to a multi-age class structure, which would allow the district to operate with a smaller teaching staff.

“In multi-age classes, children have a larger daily social and intellectual circle,” Dr. Rachlin said, adding that the district would have between 15 and 20 students in a classroom if it adopted that format.

Oysterponds currently pays Greenport $15,500 per student to educate its seventh- and eighth-graders, which costs the district more than $400,000 in an average year. The district pays Greenport $55,000 per student for special education students. Dr. Rachlin estimated that it would cost $300,000 per year to run grades 7 and 8 in Oysterponds, plus $150,000 in one-time capital improvements.

The pre-K program would enable the school to diagnose learning disabilities early, in the hope of avoiding having the students classified as special education students in the future. Though state aid for pre-K is available, the program would likely cost the district $100,000 per year for teachers.

Dr. Rachlin said that the district could save $100,000 by making the superintendent position part-time and combining the principal’s position with that of the director of special education.

After Dr. Rachlin’s presentation, attendees met in small groups to discuss their concerns. They then placed notes with their ideas on placards organized according to designated topics on the walls of the gym. A large number of the notes supported the pre-K option, but many were opposed to bringing the seventh- and eighth-graders back to Oysterponds.

On the placard marked “What would you recommend?” someone scrawled a note that read: “professional study, not community members doing things.”

On the placard marked “What’s missing?” one participant wrote: “What is missing is the reality that we cannot keep our kids in a microcosm of the real world.” Another simply wrote: “Common sense.”

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