Considering the Future of Rockland County Schools

BY MICHAEL CAHILL

Pattern for Progress issues a report analyzing how solid Rockland’s educational infrastructure is for the coming decade

Declining enrollment rates and a shrinking tax base will have a profound effect on Rockland County’s school districts over the next eight years, according to a report from the Hudson Valley non-profit Pattern for Progress.

The report, released last week, talks about the problem that school districts all over the Hudson Valley are facing of declining enrollment rates. Lower enrollment means a smaller population and that decreases the tax revenue funding district budgets. All that coupled with a recession is forcing school districts to make tough decisions.

After 9/11, counties with Metro North service saw a population increase as city dwellers sought out the suburbs following the terrorist attacks. Rockland County saw an increase of 1,006 students from 2001 – 2004. Those numbers have since dropped off and Rockland is looking at a 3 percent decrease in student district enrollment by 2020.

Even though Rockland school districts are facing challenges, they have not been hit as hard as northern counties where enrollment rates in some districts have dropped by as much as 25 percent since 2000, and are expected to continue dropping.

In their response to the budget short falls, districts have turned to not only laying off teachers and staff but to closing entire school buildings. Since 1999 school districts in the Hudson Valley have closed 25 building, four of which are in Rockland County.

Two school districts in Rockland have closed buildings. The East Ramapo Central School District closed Colten Elementary School in 2009 and Hilcrest Elementary School in 2010. The district could not be reached for comment on their plans for the buildings.

The North Rockland Central School District (NRCSD) is also closing buildings. In March, the NRCSD School Board, as part of an ongoing transformation project, officially closed two buildings, the Gerald Neary Elementary School, and the North Garnerville Elementary School.

The NRCSD is entering into a lease agreement with Rockland County BOCES for the Gerald Neary building, beginning in July. Under the lease BOCES will be move their K – 8 special programs for children with learning and emotional disabilities to the building from their current location at St. Ann’s School in Nyack.

In addition to the special education program BOCES is also working with a nonprofit group to host a mental health program at the building. BOCES will also bring a childcare provider to the building for staff and NRCSD employees. At night they are hoping to offer education and development classes for adults with special needs.

“We envision a community school environment for the building,” said Dr. Mary Jean Marsico, the district superintendant of Rockland BOCES. Marsico says children with special needs will be able to have those needs met all within the educational environment.

The former North Garnerville Elementary School building, which currently plays host to some NRCSD administrative facilities, will house all the administrative facilities for the NRCSD next year. According to North Rockland Superintendant of School Ileana Eckert, the transformation project will save the NRCSD $4 million next year as well as contribute revenue from the lease with BOCES.

Begun in January of 2011, the transformation project is Eckert’s brainchild. She looked ahead at possible budget situations and saw that something needed to be done to avoid massive tax increases for residents.

The plan closes two schools, reintegrates the 5th and 6th graders into an elementary school environment, and puts the 9th graders back into the high school. Students will also receive more academic time with the core subjects, and teachers will have the opportunity to teach students, in special classes, something different about their passions.

“The idea for the transformation project was based on economic factors, but became an opportunity to look at curriculums and practices in the district and really make a difference for the students,” said Eckert.

With the savings from the transformation project, if NRCSD’s proposed budget passes for 2012 -2013 passes in May, there will be no needs for additional budget cuts next year.

The purpose behind the Pattern for Progress study, according to researcher Adam Bosch is to raise awareness of the issues facing school districts and to start a conversation about how those problems can be addressed in ways that benefit the community.

The report talks about several closed school buildings in the region that have been repurposed to become community centers, and village halls. These are examples of a building adding value to a community. Through the transformation project partnership with Rockland BOCES, the NRCSD is doing just that.

For more information about Pattern for Progress and to view the report visit their website http://pattern-for-progress.org/