Salem School to face challenges with projected steep enrollment decline

The school-age population in Salem is projected to decline by nearly 30 percent in the next 10 years, but school and district administrators say the solution is more complicated than reducing the budget to match enrollment.

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.

According to data from the Connecticut State Data Center, Salem is one of many towns in New London County that will see a decline in the school-age population by 2025, but only North Stonington and Old Lyme will see a steeper decline.

By 2025, the population of people age 5 to 19 in Salem will be around 667, down from 926 in 2015.

Superintendent Joseph Onofrio II said the Board of Education will start addressing declining enrollment, and it will be critical for the board and the town to maintain a balance between the budget and the quality of education at Salem School.

“People move in because of the quality of the education system,” he said. Compromising the quality of the education would run the risk of discouraging families from moving into Salem, he said.

Members of the Board of Finance pointed out at its March 10 meeting that the reduction in teachers and staff at Salem School, the town’s only school, has not matched the pace of the decline in enrollment, which has dropped 29 percent since the 2006-2007 academic year

Onofrio cautioned that enrollment numbers fluctuate as local employers like Pfizer, Electric Boat and the Naval Submarine Base hire employees. Cutting teachers would not proportionately bring up class sizes since students leave from different grades.

Principal Joan Phillips said it will also be important for the school to preserve its unified arts programming, as the school already lost its industrial arts and home economics programs due to budget cuts. She said the district strives to educate the “whole child,” not just teach the basic subjects.

“We don’t want to cut any of that because that’s part of that ‘whole’ education,” she said. “And I know families have really spoken out in town that they want enrichment and special things so we certainly don’t want to take away some of the arts and music.”

With the exception of sending its high school students to East Lyme, Salem does not share any school services with other towns, but Phillips said the state is starting to discuss options for creating more regional school districts. She said special education programs may become a pilot for regionalization.

As one example, Onofrio cited a 2013 article in Connecticut Magazine proposing a six-region system based around the state’s regional education services centers. The six centers, such as LEARN in Old Lyme, were started in 1967 to help districts work together to provide services for their students and save money.

Onofrio also recognized the potential problem of having a single body governing a large area, and the desire for residents to maintain control over their school.

“I think the committee has to look at all of the options that potentially exist,” he said.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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