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School districts adjusting to steep decline in students

The Lyme-Old Lyme school district is pursuing marketing to retain and recruit students.

Montville has cut 28 teaching positions over the last decade, while Groton has closed four schools and is proposing to close two more.

And Ledyard recently reached a voluntary cooperative agreement with Norwich Public Schools to allow up to 40 high-school students in Norwich to attend Ledyard High School.

School districts across the state are facing a steady decline in the school-age population, a trend expected to continue over the next decade, and many in the region are looking for ways to evolve to meet the changing demographics.

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

And by 2025, student population is projected to decline by another nearly 10 percent to 631,241 students, according to the Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut.

For some towns, the projected decrease by 2025 is much higher. 

North Stonington's school-age population of 975 in 2015 is projected to fall to 642 in 10 years.

In East Lyme, there were 3,088 students of school age in 2015, with 2,248 projected for 2025.

Ledyard's 3,171 school-age students are projected to dwindle to 2,395 in 2025.

The figures take into account all school-age children in the community, rather than student enrollment, which accounts for only the number of children who are enrolled in a public school district.  

Experts link the decrease 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 to find better job opportunities.

They say the decline is happening in most communities across Connecticut, though there are some outliers, in particular urban areas.

School officials say the decline in student enrollment affects planning for school buildings, class sizes, and even decisions about where students will attend school.

In the environment of declining enrollment, some officials say they are looking for opportunities to distinguish and promote their districts.

Demographic shifts

Donald Kennedy, director of planning services for the New England School Development Council, said the state's decline in school-aged children comes as many people are starting their families in the southern and western regions of the country, where college and high school graduates are moving for jobs.

He said the economic downturn in 2007 — and its lingering effects — have created an even stronger push from the Northeast toward the South and West.

“It’s taken a great deal of time out of 2007 for places to start attracting families and new jobs throughout New England — not just Connecticut,” Kennedy said.

The state's birth rate is down because its population is aging, he added.  

Philip Lane, a professor of economics at Fairfield University, also ties declining school enrollment to birth rate, which he said has been dropping for more than a decade as people have fewer children and have them later in life.

Moreover, in the 1980s, as Connecticut transitioned from manufacturing to a more service-based economy, it largely went from being a state that imports people to one that exports people.

"We have been losing people between the ages of 25 and 45," Lane said, "and it's been happening for an extended period of time."

In southeastern Connecticut, the withdrawal of large companies, such as Pfizer Inc., has contributed to the shift.

Lauren Sardi, an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University, points to the economy as the primary reason people are leaving the state, though other factors, such as weather, can play a role.

“It’s a really bad economic climate, so there aren’t many jobs available for those who are highly skilled and actually for those who aren’t very highly skilled,” she said. “Combined with high taxes, it’s just not a good environment for people to try to raise their families.”

And general demographic trends may have an outsized impact on the small state.

“Because Connecticut is so small — geographically and in terms of the number of people — the larger population trends you would see across the country are magnified in Connecticut,” Sardi said.

Budgets, teaching positions

Chuck Zettergren, president of the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials, said that districts facing declining enrollment can reduce staffing, support services or transportation costs.

Typically, though, declining enrollment doesn't happen at only one grade level, but occurs with a number of students overall.

So, certain costs, such as building maintenance and electricity, don't change, said Zettergren, assistant superintendent for finance and operations for Rocky Hill Public Schools.

Members of the Salem Board of Finance pointed out at their 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 2006-07 academic year.

Superintendent Joseph Onofrio II cautioned that enrollment numbers fluctuate along with employment numbers at Pfizer, Electric Boat and the Naval Submarine Base, and it's not always possible to cut teachers because the drop in students is spread over all the grades.

The Stonington school district had 2,569 students during the 2005-06 school year, compared to a projected 2,151 in 2016-17.

Over that time, Stonington's education budget has increased — from $27.1 million to a proposed $36.4 million in 2016-17 — because of increases in wages and health insurance, special education and utilities costs, and a decrease in state aid.

Over that same time, the number of certified staff members has declined only slightly, from 205.5 to 203.9.

Stonington Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said the district needed to add special education teachers and support staff.

But the decline in student enrollment has resulted in smaller class sizes that are “well under 20” in kindergarten through second grade.

But in some districts, such as Montville, the decline in enrollment has had a significant impact on teaching staff.

Montville has cut 28 teaching positions over the past decade, as the number of students dropped from 2,916 to 2,207 this school year. The number of job cuts would be higher if the district hadn’t started offering full-day kindergarten, Assistant Superintendent Laurie Pallin said.

Montville's education budget has increased each year since 2005, but largely because of increasing special education costs and tuition for out-of-district placements.

New marketing efforts

For some districts, the decline in enrollment represents a new way to think about a public school system.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser said his district is planning a marketing campaign for next year — a new concept for the public school district, but one that private and magnet schools have been using for years.

"I think because of this declining enrollment, the paradigm has shifted, and we can no longer be passive recipients of students," Neviaser said. "We have to go out and actively recruit students to come to our schools."

The district wants to retain students, encourage others from Lyme and Old Lyme who attend private or magnet schools to consider returning to public school, and attract families considering moving to the area and tuition-based students who live in other towns.

The district began its marketing effort this year, and is proposing $50,000 for marketing next year. Initiatives include promotional videos and advertisements.

Officials have been discussing over the past several years how to maintain programs as student numbers decrease, Neviaser said. For example, maintaining a school band requires a certain number of students.

Montville district officials, who have tried traditional methods like parent nights for eighth-graders who might be considering leaving the district for high school, also are pursuing new tactics, such as promotional videos and a survey of parents whose children have left the district.

"It's a new thing for schools to be in the business of marketing themselves, but one that we need to take seriously," Pallin said.

New London school officials, who are planning the final phases of becoming the state's first all-magnet school district, say the need to recruit out-of-district students puts them in a unique situation.

Though projections show an overall school-age population decline for the city, the New London Public Schools Enrollment Projection Report, prepared for the school board by consultants Milone & MacBroom, predicts both an increase in out-of-district students and residents into the schools.

The Milone & MacBroom study projects a total New London school population of about 3,400 growing to 4,300 by the 2023-24 school year.

The out-of-district student population is predicted to double to about 1,088, with smaller gains in the number of students from the city.

"What you find is more and more parents want different options. You have to be smart, recruit and promote while informing parents about your programs," Superintendent of Schools Manuel Rivera said. "It is part of what we have to do on an annual basis. We've got to have an excellent program. That's what parents are interested in."

Saving by collaborating

Robert Rader, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said that in an environment of declining enrollment, school districts also are looking at saving money by sharing services.

North Stonington, one of the smallest districts in the state, saved money on health insurance by joining a health care consortium and moving teachers to a high-deductible plan.

Ultimately, Superintendent Peter Nero hopes a plan to regionalize food service will bring cost savings to the district, as well.

Groton is among the schools in a collaborative to buy fuel oil and electricity.

Six centers in the state, such as LEARN in Old Lyme, were started in 1967 to help districts work together to provide services for their students and save money.

But retaining local control remains important for many communities.

“For many towns, the school system itself is not only a historic tradition, but also something that is the center of their community,” Rader said. “Often, they don’t want to give up these things. In some cases, the demographics suggest they are best off doing that. For reasons of pride and reasons of civic loyalty, they have just held off. Certainly, they are all looking to be more efficient and more effective with the dollars they have.”

As the pool of students shrinks, some districts are looking to reach agreements with other towns to take some of their students.

Ledyard recently reached an agreement with Norwich Public Schools that would allow up to 40 high-school-age students in Norwich to attend Ledyard High School.

Norwich is one of the only districts in southern New London County projected to see an increase in its school-age population over the next 10 years.

A Salem Board of Education subcommittee recently considered, but ultimately rejected, sending its seventh- and eighth-grade students to East Lyme, which educates Salem's high schoolers.

Stonington has shown interest in absorbing North Stonington's high school students.

Extra classrooms, schools

In some towns, fewer students means empty classrooms or closed schools.

Plans call for the closing of Ledyard Center School.

Groton has shuttered four schools in the last decade. A proposed new school construction plan would shrink the district further, from 10 schools to eight.

East Lyme is considering consolidating three aging elementary schools into two.

The Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education approved in 2011 a redistricting plan to transition Center School in Old Lyme from an elementary school to a facility for administrative offices and pre-kindergarten classes.

While the Waterford Board of Education considered rebuilding the Oswegatchie, Quaker Hill and Great Neck elementary schools and closing two other schools in 2004, it commissioned a study on the district’s enrollment future.

Hyung C. Chung, a consultant from Orange, predicted in a 2002 study and a 2004 update that enrollment at the town’s elementary schools would drop by nearly 5 percent in the following 10 years.

The district decided to close the Cohanzie and Southwest elementary schools, and rebuild Clark Lane.

Montville's six schools have had to adapt to the lower numbers of students.

Classrooms that were once filled with students all day are being repurposed for group meeting rooms or classrooms dedicated to English Language Learning classes.

Preston Veterans' Memorial School has 293 students, although it can handle 450.

Enrollment at Preston Plains Middle School is projected to be 144, with a school capacity of 200.

Preston officials continue to discuss whether to consolidate all students to the newer PVMS.

Superintendent John Welch said surplus classroom space at each school is being used for other school functions.

Some superintendents caution that projections aren't reliable for more than a few years out.

East Lyme Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton said the district has gained 20 students since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, a positive sign that he will monitor.

But, in light of the overall projected decline, he said "all options are open."

"I think we need to be creative," he said, "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."

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Amanda Hutchinson, Nate Lynch, Martha Shanahan, Greg Smith, Deborah Straszheim, and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This version clarifies that it is Norwich Public Schools that has an agreement to send students to Ledyard High School.


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