ALBANY — Falling student enrollments and the spread of poverty have emerged as major challenges for rural school districts across upstate New York.

Those problems have become increasingly acute since 2008, according to research released Aug. 8 by the New York State Association of School Business Officials.

That’s when the Great Recession kicked in, and many upstate counties began shedding population as residents headed elsewhere to look for employment, the association said in its report.

Over the past decade, 84.9 percent of the rural districts have seen enrollment declines of greater than 10 percent, it found.

The number of students coming from poor backgrounds has also risen sharply in that time, and many districts are now seeing a higher percentage of children qualifying for free or reduced price lunch programs.

In Niagara County, for instance, just 15 percent of the students enrolled in the Royalton-Hartland Central School District in Middleport qualified for those lunch programs in the 2006-07 school year, according to state data.

By 2014-15, the most recent year for which the statistic was available, the poverty rate there had climbed to 33 percent of the student body.

At the Delaware Academy School District in Delaware County, Superintendent Jason Thomson said 47 percent of the students now qualify for free or reduced price meals.

“It’s the highest rate we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Consistent with the statewide trend for rural districts, Thomson said his district has experienced significant shrinkage in enrollment, though the total number of pupils has stabilized in the past couple of years.

“In New York, we keep taxing the heck out of businesses, and when you push businesses and jobs out what goes with them? Families,” he said.

The report found that the enrollment drops are having serious consequences for rural districts.

“Some schools may have to cut back on valuable academic and enrichment opportunities, from Advanced Placement courses to music and sports programs, when they no longer have the student numbers needed for viability,” the report said.

Scott Osborne, superintendent of Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School, said his district is all too familiar with the struggles described in the report.

“This report could have been written with our name on it,” he said. “It perfectly describes the situation we’ve been facing for a while now.”

Over the past 10 years, Elizabethtown-Lewis has seen its enrollment drop by 30 percent. The current figure is 245 students, and 61 percent of them are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, Osborne said.

He said the district is in the midst of a study with nearby Westport Central School about a possible merger, in part, to reduce costs. In 2014, prompted by the enrollment declines, some sports teams for the two districts merged.

While outward population migration is beyond the control of school officials, Osborne noted that his district’s School Board members believe “there is a lot we can do” to address the challenges.

He and Thomson said the state’s tax cap, enacted in 2011, has created headaches for school districts because at times it has been below 1 percent, leaving little flexibility in fiscal planning.

The report suggested that one way to address the challenges is through “increased collaboration” by the districts, regional Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and community agencies. It also suggested that expanded distance learning be considered.

All school districts depend on what amounts to Albany’s “politically driven” formula for distributing education aid to public classrooms, said David Little, executive director of the New York State Rural Schools Association. But while that funding has helped, it has not stemmed the enrollment slide.

“I see this report as a real clarion call for the state to rethink its allocations for rural school funding,” Little said.

He said while many rural districts have graduation rates of approximately 90 percent — far higher than urban districts — the diplomas are “worth less” when reviewed by college admissions officers and employers because often the students were given no opportunity for advanced placement and other specialized course work.

“Even when we get a healthy number for state aid, largely it doesn’t do more than maintain services,” he said. “You’re just perpetuating a severe economic crisis.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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