North Stonington schools want small-town feel

With North Stonington’s school-age population slated to drop significantly over the next 10 years, administrators in one of the smallest school districts in the state hope to maintain the charms of their small-town school.

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.

Projections by the state indicate that the town’s school-age population will decline by around 34 percent over the next nine years, from 975 to 642 children.

The study has put regionalization on the minds of many residents and Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero, who admitted he’s “not a big fan” of the idea. He pointed to the last years in which North Stonington students attended Stonington high school, in the 1950s, saying his impression was that the town’s students never felt they were a part of Stonington’s high school.

“It really is a Mayberry atmosphere here,” Nero said.

The projected enrollment submitted March 29 by the New England School Development Council shows enrollment won’t be hit as hard as the population of school age children: from 729 students to a projected 674 students in 2025. The growth of the pre-kindergarten program implemented in 2006 is one bulwark against declines.

To operate one of the smallest districts in the state means cost sharing has become a necessity. Nero has highlighted the district’s efforts to save money on health insurance by joining a healthcare consortium and moving teachers to a high deductible plan at several budget meetings this year. Ultimately, he hopes a plan to regionalize food service and distribution will bring cost savings to the district as well.

While the district has found savings and kept a flat budget for five out of the past eight years, the budget hasn’t tracked the lower enrollment. Over the past 10 years, the budget has climbed from $11,022,960 in the 2005-2006 fiscal year to a proposed $13,011,045 at the last Board of Education meeting. Nero says that it has been difficult to trim teachers in a small school district, though they reevaluate each year based on their number of students. The number of teachers in 2005 was 76.

Advertising with a trim budget is also impossible, Nero said, though he believes the academic success of the district speaks for itself, and he has regularly highlighted the climbing test scores of students at Wheeler middle and high schools. And if the building project passes, according to Board of Education chair Robert Carlson, he hopes to be able to draw students from other towns in the community as well by emphasizing the personal attention of the small school.

“There might be a (student thinking), ‘I like I can go there and play a sport, I can be on the debate team, I can be on the band,’” Carlson said.

There are optimistic, if nebulous, plans for the two-story section of the high school space left vacant under the renovation plan, which would take the office and library section of the building and use it as central administration offices. Chair Mike Urgo has met with representatives of LEARN, a regional educational service center based in Old Lyme, and said they have expressed significant interest in the building, though no commitments can be made ahead of a referendum expected in the coming months.

Suggestions for the remaining space made by the public at the last meeting of the board of selectmen also included a community space (joint meetings of the several boards are already held in the library) as well as additional offices for municipal government.

“I think the knee jerk reaction is to do this and do that … people need to be cognizant of the fact that this will rebound if the economy gets better,” Nero said.

n.lynch@theday.com

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