COLONIE — It’s a tale of two districts.
As the North Colonie School District is preparing to spend millions on renovations to accommodate a projected influx of some 1,000 additional students over the next decade, its neighbor, the South Colonie School District, lost more students than that over the last 15 years.
According to the state Education Department, in the 1999-00 school year, South Colonie had 5,786 students in grades K-12. In the 2015-16 school year, that number dropped to 4,734 students. For the 2016-17 school year, it did tick up a bit to 4,893 according to the Education Department.
On the other side of town, in the North Colonie School District, in 2015-16 there were 5,511 students while in 1999-2000 there were 5,418. Figures for the 2016-17 year, which were released earlier this summer, indicate it had 5,544 students.
At first glance, the decrease in South Colonie is startling, but Dan Harp, a senior planner with the Capital District Regional Planning Commission who specializes in school enrollment, said a declining enrollment is not in and of itself a bad thing.
“Too much decline isn’t good, but in general some [districts will] argue that declines allowed them more flexibility in what they offered the students,” he said. “Instead of needing six periods of 10th grade English, for example, they could have three and spend the remaining three periods on electives.”
South Colonie, as another example, does not have to spend millions on renovations to accommodate new students. On paper, renovations and new buildings do sound nice, but North Colonie was faced with a divided constituency who voted down the initial $198 million project, eventually approving a smaller, $106.3 million plan.
Now, the district has to go through the headaches and inherent inconveniences to students, faculty and parents of actually implementing the massive renovation project. Officials also maintain that because the projected enrollment increase did not go away and the space crunch and dilapidated infrastructure is still very real, they will have to make the other $50 million worth of improvements sooner rather than later. And that likely means going back to skeptical voters to sell the need.
Harp said when he first started working with districts on enrollment projections, he was anxious about informing them of a likelihood of smaller student bodies in their near future because so much – like state aid and staffing levels – is dependent on the number of students. He was surprised, though, to learn district officials did not share his initial, knee-jerk concerns.
“There has been some adjustments in staffing and state aid over the years but we are not talking about a precipitous drop. We are talking about a span of 15 years,” said South Colonie Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Tim Backus.
Enrollment does directly impact state aid, which is difficult to calculate because the complexities of an already confusing formula are compounded by different types of aid like building, transportation and special education all mixed into the district’s annual package.
Roughly, though, according to the Education Department, state aid increased by more than $1 million for North Colonie than South Colonie from the 2009-10 school year to 2016-17: In North Colonie, aid jumped from $16.3 million to $20.3 million while South Colonie went from $19.5 million to $22.5 million.
But, the logical flip side of that is the more students you have, the more it costs to educate them. According to the Education Department, in 2015, North Colonie spent $19,037 per student per year while South Colonie spent $20,050 per student. The statewide average, which is the highest in the nation, is $22,593 per student, per year.
Backus said five year projections, which he calculates from a combination of sources, indicate district enrollment will remain steady “and maybe even gain a little bit.” Harp said his projections are the same, which seems to show the years of strongest decline are in the past.
One reason for the drop in enrollment, he said, is the deep, nationwide recession that officially began in about 2007, while the real life financial hardships likely began years prior. Comparing those enrolling in Kindergarten to seniors is a good indication of the lingering impacts of that dynamic, he said. For example, this year there are 322 enrolled in Kindergarten while there are 417 seniors and 376 juniors.
“When times are tough, people don’t tend to have children,” he said.
Another factor is the age of the residents and, by extension, neighborhoods in South Colonie compared to those in North Colonie, where new housing developments and apartment complexes are sprouting up in the previously undeveloped areas in the north end of town.
“Towns and school districts change and when people begin to reach a certain point in life, children grow up and move out and when people reach their 60s and 70s they start to downsize and move south,” said North Colonie Superintendent Joseph Corr. “Eventually, those houses go on the market and the neighborhoods turn over again with young families. Also, there is a lot of growth in this part of town with new construction and residence of varying types like town houses and apartment complexes.”
Harp, who studies enrollment at districts across the state and beyond, said comparing any district to North Colonie is difficult because the explosive growth there is the anomaly. Statewide, the number of students enrolled in public schools has steadily declined since the 2003-04 school year when there were just more than 2.8 million students in K-12. In 2014-15, the most recent cumulative data, total enrollment dipped to less than 2.6 million. Those numbers, though, do not include enrollment in charter schools.
“North Colonie is defying broad trends with projected strong enrollment increases. They are the outlier,” he stressed. “South Colonie, on the other hand, is very much in line with the broader trend.”