Newsday OpEd: Re-envision schools as enrollment dips

Newsday LogoFrom a Newsday Guest Essay by Ian Wilder, Long Island Housing Services’ Executive Director:

While much of the recent discussion over how to fund our schools has focused on districts where enrollment is declining, some districts are being overburdened by increased enrollment. We should be discussing how to shift resources from underburdened districts to overburdened ones, to better serve students Islandwide and reduce segregation’s continuing effect on students. I come to this topic as a nonprofit administrator with deep experience in budgeting, influenced by my work at the intersection of education and housing and by being raised by a father who was an educator.

To start, if a district decides to sell an underused building, the state should claw back a percentage of state funds used over the years to acquire, build, and maintain the building. That money should be put in a regional fund to help overburdened schools. This is not unusual. When my mother was president of the Copiague Youth Council, Suffolk County Legis. Maxine Postal helped the group obtain excess county property for a permanent location. The deed to the property said that if the Youth Council ceased to exist, the building would revert to the county. Similarly, any portion of the sale price of a school building that represents state investment should be returned to serve students in overburdened districts.

We also could treat declining enrollments as we do legislative districts undergoing demographic changes. District lines could be redrawn to move an underused school into a neighboring overburdened district. That would be a much more efficient use of resources. The overburdened district would not have to put children into overcrowded classrooms or trailers, or use precious resources to build a new school from scratch at today’s high costs. And a building designed for education would continue in that use.

Underused school buildings also could be used to create regional magnet schools. Long Island needs regional science high schools and regional arts high schools. We are a wealthy region brimming with talent; we should be doing everything we can to incubate that talent. Recent surveys show corporate leaders are seeking employees with better skills. Regional magnet schools could create a pipeline of “NextGen” workers.

Being a fair housing advocate, I would be remiss not to address how changing school populations affect housing. Now that most districts have declining populations, they no longer have a reason to use our tax dollars to speak out against housing. A school district’s job is to educate children, regardless of where they live in the district or when they move in. A school district’s job is not to make housing policy. It is not in their tax-funded mission. It is a misuse of tax dollars for any school district to use those resources to oppose housing, especially when they are opposing having to educate children whose families wish to move into the district.

Similarly, I support school districts maintaining reserves despite declining populations. I am well aware that governmental funding cycles are subject to annual state and federal budget negotiations, making it difficult to plan a sustainable long-term program. From a budgetary standpoint, calling for reduced reserves is shortsighted. When school districts cannot depend on stable levels of support from year to year, it is prudent to have reserves as a cushion.

This moment of population change is an opportunity to serve our children even better. We should do all we can to take advantage of that opportunity for their sake.

This guest essay reflects the views of Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, Inc., a 55-year-old civil rights organization focused on fair housing.