Rural schools deserve better

State lawmakers have a responsibility to understand the unique challenges facing our schools in places like the Adirondack Park and to adjust the state’s approach to supporting rural schools.

The Tupper Lake Central School District is cutting 17 to 20 jobs in the coming school year as it contends with a dwindling fund balance, rising expenses and the elimination of coronavirus aid from state and federal governments. Combined, district officials identified a $1.7 million deficit as they pieced together the district’s budget plan for the coming school year.

Yes, around $1 million of that deficit is the result of coronavirus aid going away. But that’s not the whole picture. Here’s the broader context:

Tupper Lake’s population is shrinking — Tupper Lake lost 824 residents between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census. In that same time frame, school enrollment dropped by nearly 10%, from 890 in the 2009-10 school year to 802 in the 2020-21 school year. (Enrollment was down to 722 at the start of this school year.)

Declining school enrollment is a symptom of a larger problem.

This region has an affordable housing crunch. The nation at large has a cost of living crisis. For many families, their expenses are far outpacing wage increases and the school district is suffering as a result.

When young people are able to establish themselves in a community –get a good job, buy a home, start a family — school enrollment increases or remains stable, staffing shortages ease and a community is altogether a better place to live. When young people cannot afford to put down roots, a community’s future — including the future of its schools — is put at risk in a variety of ways.

The people who are either losing their jobs or being shifted into new roles at TLCSD deserve better. But what’s happening at TLCSD is a microcosm of the struggles at rural school districts across the Adirondack North Country region and the state. Tupper Lake isn’t the only district trying to find a way to sustain its quality educational programs for kids in an increasingly challenging economic environment. This year in particular is a harrowing budget year, and for many local school districts, the outlook over the next few years isn’t looking very promising.

We have work to do locally to fix the larger issues that are contributing to declining school enrollment. In Tupper Lake, local lawmakers must do all they can to support new affordable housing developments, support businesses that employ local people and craft plans that continue to make Tupper Lake a great place to live. But lawmakers at the state level need to do their part, too.

“With the funding and the way that it works in the state and its formula … it just feels that small rural schools really take the hit when financial messes are made at the state level,” Nicole Curry, a Tupper Lake Middle-High School social studies teacher and co-president of Tupper Lake Teachers United, told Enterprise Staff Writer Aaron Marbone this week. “Or when priorities at the state level decide to change, our kids suffer.”

We couldn’t agree more.

It’s clear that the state’s support for rural schools leaves much to be desired. We hope that as budget talks wind down, state lawmakers really push for solutions to the problems that plague rural schools. Children who grow up in rural areas deserve a quality education and these problems don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Something needs to change.


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