Schools’ economic impact

Here’s one of many stats derived from a new report: Despite fewer students, more spread out, the North Country spends less per pupil than state average — still $22,580 a year

Saranac Lake High School social studies teacher Joseph Thill discusses public speaking tips with Model UN students Friday. Senior Joseph Larabie is at right. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

Despite declining enrollment and increasing expenses, local public schools remain an economic driver in small North Country communities, a new report from the statewide Association of School Business Officials shows.

The first-of-its-kind ASBO report was released Monday, generated by Rochester-based nonprofit analysis firm CGR. It underscores both the direct and indirect impact each public school district has on its local economy.

“This analysis shows that public education has a substantial economic impact on local communities, their regions and the state in addition to its important role in preparing students for college or careers,” ASBO Executive Director Michael Borges said in a statement.

The report’s results were published just over one week ahead of May 21, when voters are set to head to the polls to weigh in on their districts’ proposed 2019-20 budgets.

Enrollment declining

As enrollment at North Country schools continues to decline, the cost of serving the students who remain is increasing.

Altogether, the 59 school districts in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties serve approximately 57,571 students, according to the report. That represents just 2.1% of New York’s total public school enrollment, estimated at 2,654,836, and the lowest enrollment of any other region in the state.

Though some local school districts saw a tiny bump in enrollment in the 2018-19 school year — including Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and AuSable Valley Central school districts, which collectively gained 41 students — overall, school enrollment in the North Country has been declining since the early 2000s.

But for many local schools, this declining enrollment hasn’t meant fewer expenses.

Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Robert Catania told a handful of residents at a budget hearing on Tuesday that even though the school has served 12 fewer students in the 2018-19 school year, the decline in enrollment didn’t necessarily cut down on the district’s costs.

The needs of students at LPCS continues to climb, he said. To illustrate this, Catania and school board President Richard Preston pointed to the number of students in the district who qualify for free or reduced school lunches — more than 40% of the student body as of the 2016-17 school year.

“We are, in fact, in more areas, achieving more with less,” Catania said.

School spending increases

With low enrollment also comes a higher cost per student, according to Alan Beideck, a former economist for the state Department of Labor who lives in Saranac Lake. He also writes a biweekly column in the Enterprise about how economics affects people.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national average school spending per student was $11,762 as of 2016, the latest year for which information is available. Upstate New York is more than twice that. As of last year, excluding the five major cities, the average spending per student in upstate New York was $25,600, according to syracuse.com.

The ASBO report lists North Country school spending at $1.3 billion collectively. That would put the average spending per student here at approximately $22,580, less than the latest state average.

Yet that spending is more than the per-student spending in the Mohawk Valley region, which boasts a larger enrollment of 62,157 students but fewer school districts, 51.

Total spending at North Country school districts around the region is listed at $1.3 billion in the ASBO report, 1.8% of the total amount of school spending statewide. The Mohawk Valley region, which boasts a larger enrollment of 62,157 students among 51 school districts, spends roughly the same amount, $1.3 billion. The total per-student spending there would amount to $20,914.

Beideck said it typically costs less per student to teach 20 students than 10.

“Because of lower density populations, schools in the North Country have lower economies of scale,” he said.

In the North Country, school spending often outpaces the growth of the property tax base.

The Lake Placid Central School District has a relatively large tax base, which has increased by 2.06% in the last five years, from $2.78 billion in taxable value in 2014 to $2.84 billion this year, according to Essex County tax rolls.

But the school district’s tax levy, the amount of property taxes it collects from that tax base, increased by 9.7% in that same period, from $14.4 million in 2014 to $15.9 million in the proposed 2019-20 budget.

School districts can sometimes cut costs by sharing services, but the often expansive distances between them can make this challenging.

“Saranac Lake and Lake Placid have the advantage of being able to share resources, such as combining their sports teams, because of their proximity,” Beideck said. Saranac Lake and Lake Placid are less than 10 miles apart.

“More isolated areas, such as Long Lake, do not have that luxury, so the variety of courses and extracurricular activities is more limited.”

Jobs in public education

The 59 public school districts in the North Country directly employ 11,000 people, according to the ASBO report. Through spending on things like construction projects, the districts indirectly contribute to another 5,000 jobs.

According to a 2015 report from the state Department of Labor, education — at both public and private institutions — is the second-most “significant industry” in the region. Though the number of jobs in educational services declined by 800 between 2009 and 2014, the industry still accounted for roughly 18,600 jobs, putting it just behind state and local government as the largest employer. Food services and bars make up the region’s third largest industry.

Altogether, North Country school employees earn $566 million annually in direct income, according to the ASBO report.

The median wage of a teacher — a position that makes up roughly 20% of total jobs in the education services industry — ranges from $56,953 to $58,255, according to the Department of Labor.

According to the ASBO report, the Lake Placid Central School District, Tupper Lake Central School District and Saranac Lake Central School District each employ the full-time equivalent of 200 people.

While the number of FTEs is the same, the numbers of students they serve is not.

Lake Placid and Tupper Lake hosted 625 and 770 students last year, respectively. Saranac Lake had an enrollment of 1,152 students.

Employees in Tupper Lake take home $8 million collectively; in Lake Placid, $8.8 million; and in Saranac Lake, $13.8 million per year.

The AuSable Valley Central School District, which had two fewer students than Saranac Lake enrolled last year, employs the full-time equivalent of 300 people. Those employees earn $14.1 million in income.

The Long Lake Central School District, with an enrollment of 65 students, employs approximately 30 people who collectively earn $1.6 million, according to the ASBO report. The Keene Central School District, with an enrollment of 163 last year, employs 50 people who earn $2.9 million.

Income, sales tax impact

With public schools employing approximately 11,000 people in the North Country, there’s an ensuing impact on income and sales tax revenue as a result of the pay those employees earn and subsequently spend.

According to the ASBO report, school employees pay roughly $27.5 million in income taxes, and another $10.8 million in income tax revenue is generated indirectly as a result of school spending.

Approximately $15.8 million in sales tax revenue is generated by school employees in the North Country, according to the report. That would represent 0.11% of the total sales tax revenue New York state collected in the 2018 fiscal year, $13.6 billion.