IT'S THE 73%...
Ever so suddenly, our school district finds itself confronted with a growing student population and a simultaneous increasing demand for new programs and services. Since the 70's, we have essentially been managing the contraction of the district from an enrollment of some 14,000 to its current 4,300 some odd. Now we learn that over the next five years we can expect some 1000 new students in our schools. Although growing presents many problems, there is an excitement that comes with it. The simple fact of the matter is that an institution that is growing is more interesting and more stimulating than one that is stable or contracting. As Americans, the new intrigues us. New challenges can, however, cause us to forget our history which can, if contemplated, suggest experience based approaches to the management of change.
In the 60's, the population explosion on Long Island led to the rapid and largely uncontrolled expansion of school districts. In just a few years, however, the enrollment bubble burst, leaving school districts to mothball many essentially new school buildings, sell them for a fraction of their cost or lease them for whatever they could get, usually for a fraction of the going commercial real estate rate in the area. Still indebted for the construction costs of these schools and deriving little, if any, income from them, districts like Plainview-Old Bethpage struggled to meet their yearly budgets, often finding themselves unable to provide the quantity and quality of service of the boom times. A whole generation of teachers and support personnel was excessed, their lives changed forever by a contracting job market. Some who managed to stay on lived with the constant fear of losing their jobs. For many, the experience induced an bitterness that never abated. The impression was created in the public imagination that their tax dollars were wasted by school bureaucracies indifferent to their welfare. To be sure, some of these problems were unavoidable. Many, however, could have been better managed with a little foresight.
The limited discussion to date on how to manage the projected increase in enrollment has revealed a disturbing potential to degenerate into a growing wish-list. Open at least one mothballed building, add new media centers on to all existing elementary schools and to the reopened one, build new playgrounds, build an all-weather track at the high school, provide transportation to all students. The list appears to be unending. To be sure, all of these things would be beneficial. Yet, they are all costly, and all require the district to pass a bond issue to raise the money to implement them. The stunning reality is that seventy three percents of the homes in Plainview-Old Bethpage do not have children attending our schools. It can be very reasonably assumed that a majority of them will not have any for the foreseeable future. It may also be reasonably assumed that the current bubble in enrollment will also burst.
Experience and political realities demand that we embrace the exciting future with caution and a wisdom tempered by experience. A plan to manage the impending growth of our district must be shaped with a mind on costs both present and future and the constant reminder that the best buildings often don't house the best schools. It always has and will remain what happens between the child and the teacher in the classroom that counts.
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