Editorial: To survive, small districts must find ways to adapt

As the New Suffolk Common School District and its residents grapple with the future of the historic red schoolhouse, built in 1907, it’s safe to wonder how sustainable such small districts can be in the years to come, given the changing demographics of the North Fork.

With a trend toward second-home owners buying property across the North Fork, and with school districts like Mattituck-Cutchogue facing growing concern about decreased enrollment, it may be unrealistic to think a district like New Suffolk can continue to thrive for another five, 10 or 25 years.

Voters in New Suffolk face a decision next month on whether to send district students to schools in either Mattituck or Southold, which would effectively end instruction in their hamlet after more than a century. The other options, according to the local school board, would have caused significant drops in enrollment, leading to a large tax increase. The challenge facing the district stems from its own mistake, according to a decision last year by state Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia, who ruled that it must reinstate teacher Martha Kennelly with back pay.

But in a district this small, there’s no room for error.

In the Oysterponds School District, a similar elementary school — albeit with a larger enrollment — has provided an example of how to continue growing in a challenging landscape. To survive, a small district must adapt.

At its peak in the late 1980s, that district had about 140 students from Orient and East Marion. When Richard Malone became superintendent there in 2012, a five-year projection estimated student enrollment of 63 students. Today, he said, Oysterponds has 88 students.

In recent years, Oysterponds, which is operating this year with a budget of $5.7 million, has adapted by allowing students from outside the district to pay to attend the school. Mr. Malone said it’s brought in students from neighboring Southold and Greenport. A pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds has also helped boost enrollment, Mr. Malone said.

Oysterponds offers students in pre-K through sixth grade a unique learning environment before they transition to the Greenport School District. It’s an experience similar to what students in New Suffolk have enjoyed for so many years.

If New Suffolk cannot find a way to recover and continue educating students, it will, sadly, mark the end of an era for a hamlet that has taken so much pride in its small red schoolhouse.