East Lyme, state will need to be creative in face of declining enrollment, says superintendent

Between 2010 and 2015, Connecticut's population of school-aged children decreased by 3.46 percent, the sixth highest rate in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census.

By 2025, the student population is projected to decline by nearly 10 percent to 631,241 students, according to the Connecticut State Data Center.

Experts link decreasing student enrollment to a variety of factors, from a decline in the state's birth rate, as people have fewer children and have them later, to people leaving the state for job opportunities.

East Lyme's enrollment over the past five years has dropped by 270 students to a total of 2,747 this year.

In the next five years, the East Lyme Public School district is projected to see a loss of an additional 267 students, according to projections from the New England School Development Council.

The projected decline in enrollment has factored into the East Lyme school district’s planning, as it continues to discuss a future project for its elementary schools. It also factors into the district's focus on maintaining a breadth of programs at the high school.

Declining student enrollment has prompted East Lyme to reduce some teaching positions, said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton.

The East Lyme school district has 1.5 fewer teaching positions than it did in 2005, and the school system plans to reduce another two positions for the 2016-17 school year, said Newton.

The reduction in teaching positions would have been higher if the district hadn’t hired five teachers to implement full-day kindergarten in 2013-14, according to Newton.

But a decline in enrollment doesn’t necessarily mean that the district can eliminate teaching staff or reduce its budget, Newton explained.

The decline in enrollment is spread across the entire district, so if the district loses 20 students in one year, it typically does not happen at a single grade level.

The district also still has to pay for facilities and utility costs, as well as any items that are increasing, like rising insurance and special education costs.

But the shifts in enrollment have had an impact on the district’s long-term planning for facilities.

The projections for continued declining enrollment have factored into school officials’ decisions to pursue a project to consolidate the district’s three aging elementary schools into two.One of the new schools would be larger than the other, according Newton.

The Board of Education voted 8-2 on March 28 to to endorse a proposal that would fully renovate the Lillie B. Haynes School, postpone rebuilding Flanders Elementary School but refurbish it in the interim, and close Niantic Center School.

The new proposal approved by the board calls for renovating "as new" the 101,000-square-foot Lillie B. Haynes School, the largest of the three elementary schools, for an estimated $45 million. The town, after state reimbursement, would be responsible for $34.25 of the costs. The proposal includes up to $1.5 million to refurbish Flanders Elementary, while rebuilding the school would be postponed for five to seven years.

During his presentation to the board, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton said the district could build a new Flanders Elementary in five to seven years, according to the latest enrollment numbers.

Newton said the district will be keeping a close eye on enrollment numbers.

The district currently has 813 elementary school students, higher than the 801 students projected for the 2015-16 year. But the number of students is projected to decrease to 758 in 2020-21, before increasing slightly to 771 in 2025-26.

Newton said that while future projections overall show a decline in students, there are some positive signs that warrant further monitoring. The school district went up by 20 students since the beginning of the school year in Sept. 2015. Kindergarten enrollment for next year is also up.

Meanwhile, the district is also seeing if it could expand partnerships, like the one it has with LEARN, a regional educational resource center. LEARN currently runs school-based programs out of a wing at Lillie B. Haynes, which not only provides a source of revenue but also is important for students, he said.

In addition to educating East Lyme students, the town’s high school has a long-standing agreement with Salem to educate Salem students.

Newton said school officials in East Lyme and across the state will need to think about creative solutions, in light of declining enrollment and projected declines.

"I think we need to be creative, and I think the state of Connecticut is going to have to be creative in what they do with the massive declining enrollment that has occurred across the state," said Newton.

Newton said the beautiful town and the quality of the school system, with outstanding staff and great school cultures, help draw parents to East Lyme. He said the district wants to continue to maintain its programs.

The wide variety of offerings at the high school – including Advanced Placement courses, clubs and activities – and the high school’s rating by US News and World Report as one of the top high schools in the country – are important in building well-rounded students.

“Those are the things we obviously want to maintain and hold onto, because that’s what draws families into our town,” he said.

Editor's note: This corrects a previous verson about the size of the elementary schools in a proposal to consolidate the schools from three to two.

k.drelich@theday.com

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