Suffolk Closeup: Losing Students in an Unaffordable Region

Karl Grossman

I was unaware of a problem that is hitting most Suffolk schools hard — a declining number of students — until I was talking to a former college journalism student of mine, Tim Laube, now an administrator in the Eastport-South Manor Central School District. “The drop in enrollment,” said Mr. Laube, “is directly attributable to affordability — the cost of living on Long Island.”

The cost of housing is now very high in Suffolk and the rest of Long Island and so many young people are leaving and not having children who would go to school here, he said. “They go off to college and don’t come back,” said Mr. Laube.

Where are they going? Mr. Laube spoke of a meeting he attended at which the speaker told of “20 new school buildings a year” being constructed in South Carolina. Meanwhile, in his district, in which he is assistant superintendent for business and operations, there has been a reduction in students since 2010, when the total was 3,888, to “now 3,268. That’s a drop of 16 percent.” As a result, the district has had to reduce staff and hiring. A further decline in students is foreseen.

From Sag Harbor, my school district, I obtained in exploring the issue a detailed “Long Range Planning Study,” a “Demographic and Enrollment Analysis” covering 2018 to 2027. It was done for the district by the Western Suffolk BOCES Office of School Planning and Research. The study says the district “is expected to experience a decline in district K-12 enrollment during the projection period.” Cited are “the challenges young adults face with high rent costs and with saving money for the down payment required to purchase a home.” Also pointed to are “significant student loan debt” and “lower starting salaries.”

My wife and I purchased our first house — a seven-room home in Sayville — for $18,000 in 1964. A comparable house today would cost many, many times that.Newsday reported last year that the median sale price of a house in Suffolk was $380,000, citing data from the Multiple Listing Services of Long Island. The story’s headline: “LI HOME PRICES UP AGAIN,” and the article noted this was “a 7 percent increase from” the year before.

What would be the payments on a mortgage on a $380,000 house? An online “mortgage calculator” says with 4.5 percent interest, payments on a 30-year mortgage would be $1,925 a month. Then you have to figure on property taxes, 70 percent of which, ironically, goes to schools. With other expenses, if two people are involved, both have to work — and scrape by.

That’s why it’s hello South Carolina, hello upstate New York, etc.

In Southampton and East Hampton towns, the median prices of houses are astronomical. “The median price of homes currently listed in Southampton is $2,100,000,” reported Zillow online last year. “The median price of homes currently listed in East Hampton is $1,595,000.”

Zillow said, “The median price for homes currently listed in Sag Harbor is $2,222,750.” Wow!

According to the online “mortgage calculator,” at 4.5 percent, payments on a $1 million

mortgage over 30 years would be $5,066 a month. So, a Sag Harbor purchase of $2 million-plus would be double that. To make payments of that kind you have to be loaded.

Now not every school district in Suffolk has declining student enrollment. On stable Shelter Island, enrollment in the pre-K-to-12th grade Shelter Island School has “been steady,” its superintendent Christine A. Finn was saying last week. “We watch enrollment very carefully. It’s 209 this year and was 213 last year.” But “all over Long Island declines in enrollment have been a trend.” A key, she said, is high housing costs. When she graduated from Islip High School in 1980, it had a class of 400. “Last year the graduating class was 280,” said Ms. Finn.

There is a desperate need on Long Island for affordable housing to deal with declining school populations and other issues. Government on several levels are taking steps to encourage it. In Southampton Town, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman declared last month that too many people are being driven out of its communities because of housing costs, that the young can’t afford to live where they grew up. He has set affordable housing as a priority.

As a forum on affordable housing last year organized by The Sag Harbor Express, Mr. Schneiderman said: “When a workforce can’t live in the community, you lose part of your soul.”

And East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc called affordable housing on the South Fork a “crisis situation…We look around and see how the cost of housing is tearing away at the fabric of our community.”

There was a headline in the New York Post last month: “The exodus of New York City’s endangered middle class.” The article below it said, “New York City’s shrinking middle class is in full retreat,” and cited were “the city’s high — and rising — housing and other living costs.” We can’t let that happen here, impacting on our communities and decimating the numbers in new generations brought up in Suffolk.