Editorial: Decrease in school enrollment a cause for concern


As goes Oysterponds, so goes the North Fork?

For reasons we can debate ad nauseam, Southold Town appears to have lost its much-coveted designation as the place to live for families with school-age children.

There was a time not all that long ago when, in response to a sharp spike in student enrollment, the Mattituck-Cutchogue and Southold school districts embarked on large and costly building expansion programs. Given that you can seat only so many students in a classroom, there really was no other choice. Residents recognized that and supported the various bonding resolutions. In Greenport, the only other Southold district with a high school, the issue was not space but improving the building’s condition, also a costly proposition that residents there supported as well.

But the enrollment boom has gone bust, and the number of incoming kindergartners for next year is significantly smaller than the number of high school seniors graduating in the Class of 2013. That’s a cause for concern that extends far beyond the prospect of unused or underused school space. Fewer students also means a reduced need for teachers, teacher aides and a host of support services. And if school officials are correct in their assumption that families can’t afford to live out here, especially with a scarcity of well-paying jobs, we can’t write off the shrinking classes as a statistical anomaly.

Unless school enrollments increase dramatically over the next few years — and there seems little to no reason to anticipate that — this is a situation we’ll have to live with for quite some time.

But what to do? Out in Orient, the Oysterponds school board voted Tuesday night to lay off four teachers and reduce physical education, music and other positions from full-time to part-time. Superintendent Richard Malone suggested the cutbacks in response to falling enrollment, but the vote was all but a formality since the reductions had been built into the school budget voters approved in May.

Will other districts follow suit, either next term or in subsequent years? Will the combination of smaller student bodies and the fiscal restrictions of the state’s 2 percent cap on property tax increases provide the tipping point on school consolidation? That topic has been discussed off and on for decades, but has never generated a groundswell of popular support.

It seems big changes are coming to North Fork classrooms — and they’ll be far more profound than the addition of iPads and other high-tech devices.

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