Board mulls future of Saranac Lake schools

Amid housing crunch, childcare shortage and declining school enrollment, SLCSD board discusses future of Bloomingdale Elementary

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Central School District Board of Education is mulling the future of the district’s finances and buildings as the local population and school enrollment continues to decline. Last month, the board took a hard look at the latest batch of statistics, came to the consensus that something has to change and acknowledged that some of those changes might be difficult to make.

A recent building study commissioned by the board showed that with the two elementary schools having a faster rate of enrollment decline than the middle or high school, there is the potential that in a few years the board could consider closing Bloomingdale Elementary School and consolidating the students there with Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake. Though the board is nowhere near actually considering a vote on this, members said it poses a “somber” discussion.

District Superintendent Diane Fox said school district officials have a special look “behind the curtain” of the community. They have access to data and statistics most people only see a portion of, and keep an eye on the changes across the entire region. In addition to the big picture trends, Fox said they see what happens inside houses and the direct impact these numbers have on families and children who live here.

SLCSD board member Justin Garwood said all the data tells the same story — families are not supported enough here — and that it is worse than they realized. He felt people in local government are focusing on infrastructure, storefronts and housing, but not enough on the families.

Now that the school spring break is over, Fox will be going on a “tour” around to local government boards to share the troubling statistics with other community leaders and discuss how they can support people who want to continue to be families here.

Population, enrollment decline

The population of the district decreased by 5% from 2010 to 2020 and is projected to decrease another 6.5% by 2030 before stabilizing. The SLCSD area population in 2010 was 20,631. In 2020 it was 19,595. Projections put the population at 18,576 by next year — an estimated loss of 1,000 in five years compared to the previous loss of around 1,000 in the prior 10 years.

The study shows SLCSD having decreased enrollment in every grade level, every year. There has been a slower decline in the high school than in the elementary schools so far.

Total district enrollment decreased by 9.56% over the past five years and it’s down 2.3% from last year.

Fox said SLCSD had 1,616 students enrolled in 2003-04 and 1,140 this year. The consultants expect this trend to continue for several years before stabilizing at lower numbers.

But school enrollment has dropped in part because the district has seen a much more severe drop in the number of people born here than before. Birth rates in the district have decreased by 28% between 2010 and 2020, according to the study — from 107 in 2010 to 77 in 2020. Birth rates broke 100 nearly every year between 2004 and 2011. But since then, birth rates haven’t cracked 90 and have been in the mid-70s on several occasions.

This can be seen in the kindergarten enrollment, which was at 96 in 2012 and 53 in 2023.

Fox said births have been “steady” in recent years, but kindergarten enrollment is still going down. She said private school kindergarten enrollment is staying steady, so that does not account for the change. She said that she does not know where they are going.

“I have no quantitative data except to say they’re not staying,” Fox said. “I’m not sure where they’re going, but they’re not staying here.”

Reasons for decline

Fox said fewer people are having children. This is a cultural trend but it is also driven by economic factors that are exacerbated here in the North Country.

She described what she calls a “three-legged stool” — with the legs being job, daycare and house. Without all three of these supporting a family, it falls. Locally, Fox said it’s a lack of these three legs driving the youth population decline. Many young families cannot afford to move, stay or start here, she said.

“There’s just no way for young people to buy a house in the community that they can afford that is in any kind of shape that is appropriately livable,” Fox said.

There is a severe childcare gap here, too, she said, adding that in addition to a lack of options, it is expensive. She said the district recently had someone turn down a job because there were no day care slots open for their child’s age group.

There are also not a lot of jobs, nor a variety of professional jobs in the Saranac Lake area — if the adults in a home are not in education or health care, Fox said it is likely at least one of them is “under-employed,” meaning they’re not using a degree or skill that they have.

The more kids a family has, the more daycare, more housing and more money they need to support them.

Fox said she sees people working on each of these three legs, but she sees them being worked on in “pillars.” She wants these problems to be worked on all at once, collaboratively.


Last year, the district commissioned a building enrollment feasibility study from the educational consulting firm Alliance Education Associates. The first portion of this study — focused on SLCSD’s two elementary schools — was recently finished and released. AEA will begin the middle and high school portion soon, Fox said.

She said district officials saw trends of declining enrollment and wanted to look at how they use their buildings. Their main question is: “What is the best use of the facilities for instruction?”

If enrollment continues to decline, the board will have to look at alternative way to use district buildings.

The consultants said that the district could reconfigure in the 2027-28 school year to close Bloomingdale Elementary and move the students going there to Petrova Elementary to save on costs. At that time, Petrova’s enrollment is projected to be small enough to accommodate the additional students.

“This is going to force us to make changes at the school district level that I don’t think any body at this table, including yourself Diane, are going to want to make,” SLCSD board member Zack Randolph said. “But we’re not going to have an option.”

This decision would have to be made before the 2027-28 school year, and would take a lot of conversation, research and introspection, Fox said.

“Really, what the study said was that given the population shifts and the declining enrollment — especially at the elementary level with incoming students — that’s it’s looking like, if the board was interested, one thing they could do would be to have all of the elementary students in a single building,” Fox said.

The district closed and sold its Lake Colby Elementary School and Lake Clear School in 2011 and 2009.

This year, the district reported 297 students at Petrova and 97 at Bloomingdale. In 2012, it had 345 students at Petrova and 199 at Bloomingdale. In 2019, there were 377 students at Petrova and 108 at Bloomingdale.

SLCSD Board President Mark Farmer said if the district were to add the approximately 100 current Bloomingdale students to Petrova, that elementary school would be just a tad over what its enrollment was four years ago.

Fox said Bloomingdale’s numbers are “artificially high” because of the way the district does bussing there. But some Bloomingdale residents go to Petrova Elementary, too.

“There’s no steady enrollment number at Bloomingdale,” Fox said.

Currently, Petrova is “busting at the seams,” Garwood said, since it holds both an elementary and middle school.

The Petrova Middle School takes up the third floor of the building, has a science wing on the second floor and shares gyms, computer rooms and other spaces with the elementary school.

Fox said Bloomingdale Elementary is the district’s newest building and is in the best shape. It is sizeable and in a scenic location on a hill. But it is not as practical for the families who live seven miles away in the village of Saranac Lake.

Fox said buildings built for a certain number of students a century ago will not hold the same number of students now because it takes more space now — more rooms are used for special education, academic intervention, community schools, student services and computer labs.

Decision time

Randolph said the community has to make a decision about what it wants to be — a place for tourists and short-term vacation rentals, or a place for families and houses. He said it’s not too late to change things.

Board members wondered how aware the community and its leaders are of this decision, as well as if the state knows. They said they want to tell people about how serious this is. The school districts’ declining enrollment, troubling as it is on its own, points to larger issues.

“I am of the opinion that we are right-sizing as a community,” Fox said.

Population ebbs and flows and there’s nothing to stop it right now, but she did say they can stop it sooner rather than later, before it becomes a bigger problem.

“All I have enough time today to do is to admire the problem,” Fox said.

But she wants the district to be part of the discussion about the solution to ensure the viability of their communities.

Saranac Lake is great place to live and raise children, Fox said. It’s safe, beautiful and friendly. People want to live here. But it is expensive. Fox said they have to work on their “deficits” so people who do want to live here can.


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