Twin States’ Schools Feel Squeeze From Declining Enrollment, Increased Performance Expectations

  • Samantha Thurston a junior at Chelsea Public School talks with teacher Lily Trombley in the hall between classes  in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb. 21, 2014.<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Samantha Thurston a junior at Chelsea Public School talks with teacher Lily Trombley in the hall between classes in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb. 21, 2014.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • At Chelsea Public School on Feb. 19, 2014, second-grader Harper Crance thinks about her math problem while classmate Paige Allen helps her. It was Winter Carnival week at the Chelsea, Vt., school, with each day having a theme. This day was mustache day.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    At Chelsea Public School on Feb. 19, 2014, second-grader Harper Crance thinks about her math problem while classmate Paige Allen helps her. It was Winter Carnival week at the Chelsea, Vt., school, with each day having a theme. This day was mustache day. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • At Chelsea Public School, second-grade teacher Amanda Gray gives a high five to student Henry Rosalbo while working on math problems at the school in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb 19, 2014.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    At Chelsea Public School, second-grade teacher Amanda Gray gives a high five to student Henry Rosalbo while working on math problems at the school in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb 19, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kennadie Edwards raises her hand during her second grade math class at Chelsea Public School, on Feb. 19, 2014, in Chelsea, Vt.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Kennadie Edwards raises her hand during her second grade math class at Chelsea Public School, on Feb. 19, 2014, in Chelsea, Vt. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Samantha Thurston a junior at Chelsea Public School talks with teacher Lily Trombley in the hall between classes  in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb. 21, 2014.<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • At Chelsea Public School on Feb. 19, 2014, second-grader Harper Crance thinks about her math problem while classmate Paige Allen helps her. It was Winter Carnival week at the Chelsea, Vt., school, with each day having a theme. This day was mustache day.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • At Chelsea Public School, second-grade teacher Amanda Gray gives a high five to student Henry Rosalbo while working on math problems at the school in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb 19, 2014.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Kennadie Edwards raises her hand during her second grade math class at Chelsea Public School, on Feb. 19, 2014, in Chelsea, Vt.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

For the past 15 years, a slow-moving crisis has been advancing on public education in the Twin States. The number of children in Vermont and New Hampshire schools has been falling as steadily as a receding tide. But unlike a tide, the numbers aren’t likely to rise again soon, education officials and economists said.

In Vermont, declining enrollment is driving up school tax rates, which are linked to a school district’s per pupil cost. In both states, the village school model so common to rural New England is endangered, as small schools struggle to provide a full range of courses to their students at a reasonable cost.

“We have been in a state of dramatic decline,” said Jeff Francis, director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

“Our classes are becoming so small,” said Sylvia Sivret, principal at Cornish Elementary School.

Over the past decade, New Hampshire public school enrollment has declined by nearly 10 percent, from a little over 207,000 in October 2003 to a little under 188,000 in October 2012. In Vermont, enrollment topped out at 105,500 students in the mid-1990s. This year, fewer than 80,000 students are enrolled in Vermont public schools. (The total number of students backed by public funding is around 86,000.)

Although the enrollment decline is expected to slow it is unlikely to reverse itself, and school experts and economists have warned of a “new normal,” an era in which school enrollments remain near their current levels thanks to low birth rates, slow job growth, slow migration into the Twin States and an aging population.

Compounding the challenges facing schools, the decline in enrollment has coincided with a period of rising expectations for students from federal and state governments. This has led to a paradoxical increase in spending, even as enrollment falls. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public schools have grown accustomed to constant change, and the enrollment decline promises another wave, as school officials, parents and students adapt.

Some of that work has begun. The K-8 schools in Cornish and Plainfield have been fielding some joint sports teams, and Sivret has been talking to Plainfield Principal Ellen Langsner about multi-age classrooms, which Langsner has implemented in Plainfield because of falling enrollment.

“We are going to have to go further down that road, because of economics,” Sivret said.

Enrollment Spikes

Schools in Vermont and New Hampshire experienced two enrollment spikes in the second half of the 20th century. The first, in the early 1970s, was attributable to the baby boom generation; the second, in the mid-1990s, was attributable to the children of the boomers, the so-called echo boom.

The first wave followed school reforms and led to a school construction boom, as new town and regional schools were built to accommodate both the crush of students and improvements in curriculum. The second wave swept along another construction boom, as school districts renovated and expanded schools to meet new building standards.

But the echo boom has moved through the schools and there’s no large generation on the horizon to replace them. The echo boomers aren’t having kids in the same number as their parents, said Tom Kavet, state economist and principal economic adviser to the Vermont Legislature.

Nonetheless, when school officials answer questions about declining enrollment, it’s often with a distinctly hopeful air, often a variation of “we actually saw a slight increase this year.”

At Chelsea Public School, Principal Mark Blount pointed to this year’s enrollment, 191 students. That’s the highest level at the K-12 school since 2006. The closing last year of Wellspring Waldorf School, in Tunbridge, swelled the student count at some of the schools in the Orange Windsor Supervisory Union, which administers schools in Chelsea, Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge.

“I think part of it is that our schools are developing a good reputation,” said David Bickford, superintendent of Orange Windsor.

But Kavet was quick to douse the idea of a widespread increase in enrollment.

“The answer is no,” he said, adding that “when you work through the numbers you don’t get the prospect of a really big rebound.”

A 2012 report on the effect of housing growth on school enrollment in New Hampshire found that “births have dropped sharply … because there are fewer women in the child-bearing age categories. Younger households are postponing having children, and when they do have children, they generally choose to have fewer children than their parents did.” The report, by Applied Economic Research, a Laconia, N.H., consulting firm, noted that slower employment growth has reduced migration into the state.

“A dramatic change in employment growth/migration could occur, but it is not the most likely scenario going forward,” the report says.

The report projects a decline in enrollment through 2020. “In effect, even with a sharp increase in migration, the state would not experience sharp enrollment growth,” the report says.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the report also upends the common belief among local officials that housing development spurred school enrollment during the 1990s. Demographic factors, including the number of births and jobs, were the sole cause, the report concludes.)

The views expressed by Kavet and the New Hampshire report are in line with federal school enrollment projections, which show growing enrollment in the South and Southwest over the next decade, and continued declines throughout New England, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Pressure on Schools

While enrollment has declined, new laws have put more pressure on schools to teach every child. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is the most notable of the new laws, but states have also gotten in on the act, and for a good reason. In the past, decent jobs were available even for high school dropouts, but the economic landscape now substantially favors the better educated.

In both states, public schools now pick up children as young as 3 for early education programs. Vermont is weighing universal preschool for public schools. New Hampshire lawmakers raised the dropout age to 18 a few years ago. The number of high school credits needed for graduation also has risen, and a plan is afoot in Concord to add a fourth year of math to those requirements.

“It was acceptable to have kids dropping out 20 years ago,” said Patrick Andrew, superintendent of the Mascoma Valley Regional School District. Compulsory schooling began at age 6, and if students didn’t learn to read on time, they often passed through grades without substantial intervention until middle school.

Now, if a child in elementary school falls behind in reading, an extra hour of instruction is applied to bring the student back up to the level of his or her peers, Andrew said. “A kid’s reading level in third grade is such a predictor of success in school,” he added.

What this has meant in Mascoma, which educates children from Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange, is that staffing has remained roughly the same, even as the district’s enrollment has declined. Rather than let staff go, administrators reassigned them to where they could help students. If an elementary school no longer needed one of its reading teachers, there was a need for a middle school reading specialist, Andrew said.

“We put those forces somewhere else where they were needed,” he said. That’s a direct response to the increased expectations on public schools, he said.

Mascoma’s reward has been some of the best elementary school scores in the state on the annual New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, tests.

Declining enrollment has been part of the discussion surrounding the proposed $21.5 million plan to improve Mascoma Valley Regional High School that will go before voters next month. This line of questioning asks why the school needs to get bigger even as enrollment is falling.

“There is no quantitative justification for expansion,” Canaan resident Malcolm Love, a prominent opponent of the project, wrote in a letter to the Valley News .

Supporters of the project tout its planned qualitative improvements. In addition to a sprinkler system, the school needs better facilities to provide the programming and instruction that keeps students engaged in school.

“The programming needs are there,” said Andrew. The expansion and renovation at the high school would add new science classrooms, a new shop classroom, better performing arts spaces, a bigger gym and cafeteria. Education needs have been ratcheted up since the school was founded in the early 1960s.

“It was built at a time when the square-foot requirements were half what they are now,” Andrew said.

In Lyme, school officials also have put an expansion plan on the annual meeting warrant. Lyme School is the exception to the widespread enrollment decline. The number of students has climbed from 171 in October 2003 to 209 in October 2012.

“This has been an attractive destination for families,” said Mike Harris, superintendent of Lyme’s single-town SAU. The $3 million expansion and renovation plan is intended to accommodate the students already in Lyme School, and would replace three temporary classrooms now in use.

School officials haven’t done any enrollment projections, said Harris, who has found them to be unreliable. “No one knows how to predict or prepare for a reversal,” he said. “It’s just hard for schools, it really is.”

A Brain Drain

During an interview in his office, Mark Blount, the affable Michigander who is in his second year as principal of Chelsea Public School, didn’t seem inclined to sugar coat the enrollment difficulties facing Vermont schools.

“There’s no dispute,” he said. “Four of the six New England states are the oldest states in the nation, and it’s only getting worse.” It’s expensive to live here and the flight of the region’s youth is causing a brain drain.

The low enrollment has led to competition for the dwindling number of students. “I always think word of mouth is the best policy,” Blount said. But the school also has what he called a “recruitment brochure,” aimed at bringing tuition students to the K-12 school from the surrounding towns of Tunbridge, Washington, Corinth and Orange.

The combination of inexorable population forces and the need to put students at desks leads to some dissonant thinking. “We have a finite pool” of potential students, Blount noted. But at the same time, “I think they see a lot of positive things happening here.”

This year, there are 23 kindergartners at Chelsea, part of the uptick in enrollment. But Blount said next year’s kindergarten class is likely to be similar to other recent classes, 10 to 12 pupils.

“Vermont just has to grow,” he said. “If you want more kids K-12, we’re just going to have to grow.”

The high-water mark for enrollment at Chelsea Public School was 325. Blount’s enrollment goals are modest: He said he would like to raise it to 200. There are educational reasons for this, such as being able to offer a wider range of classes to high school students, but Vermont law provides a powerful financial motivation.

Under Vermont’s school funding law, education tax rates are set based on per pupil cost. The percentage of a district’s per pupil cost above the state-determined spending amount per pupil is then applied to the state’s base education property tax rate. Put simply, if a school district spends 10 percent more per pupil than the spending level set by the state, its homestead property tax rate will be 10 percent higher than the tax rate set by the state. When a district’s enrollment goes down, its per pupil cost goes up, driving up the homestead tax rate paid by resident taxpayers on their homes.

This can cut both ways. If enrollment were to increase by 10 percent from one year to the next, a district could also increase spending by 10 percent without increasing taxes, said Bill Talbott, chief financial officer at the Vermont Agency of Education. A drop in enrollment is more complicated.

“When you’re declining, you should spend less, or you’ll have a higher tax rate,” Talbott said. But the state prevents enrollment figures from dropping by more than 3.5 percent in a given year, which means the Agency of Education accounts for more students than are actually in the schools. There are currently 700 to 800 “phantom students” in Vermont’s school accounting system, Talbott said, their existence attributable solely to the state’s desire to protect taxpayers from crushing tax increases caused by declining enrollment.

Act 68, the 2003 reform of the original school funding law, Act 60, was intended to put this type of pressure on schools, Talbott said. Gov. Peter Shumlin also has been vocal in calling on school boards to cut their budgets.

In the past few years, schools have begun adding preschool classes, which can create a short-lived bump in enrollment. Beyond starting a preschool — a measure Chelsea voters have rejected twice despite the improvement it would make in their tax bills — or enticing more students, the primary way a school can reduce per pupil spending is to cut staff, since the vast majority of school spending is on wages and benefits.

Woodstock Union High School has already had to do so. The union school district’s board cut four staff jobs in the fiscal year 2011 budget, then came back the next year with a budget carrying a 2.4 percent decrease in spending. Taxes went up both years and declining enrollment was a major factor.

Former board member Jay Leiter said the school has been aggressive in trying to maintain its enrollment.

“About 10 years ago,” Leiter wrote in an email, “we 1) conducted a survey to find out why kids did or did not come to Woodstock HS/MS, 2) produced a brochure as a marketing tool, 3) actively started visiting surrounding elementary/middle schools to recruit students, 4) reviewed our curricular offerings to make them attractive (we ended up emphasizing the arts and improving our computer-related courses and resources) and 5) made it very clear to administrators that maintaining enrollment was a very important goal.”

Rethinking School Governance

In Vermont education circles, the word “crisis” has started to creep into talk about the public education system. With fewer students, the highest per pupil spending in the country at just shy of $19,000 per pupil (New Hampshire is 10th at just over $14,000 per pupil) and a low rate of post-secondary education, Vermont lawmakers are looking more seriously at reforming the state’s system of school governance.

Proposals to change the governance structure aren’t new, but started to gain steam in 2006, with a proposal from then commissioner of Education Richard Cate. A broad cross-section of education and business groups, ranging from the Vermont Realtors to the Vermont School Boards Association, are calling for reform of the state’s education system. The House Education Committee has been taking testimony about transforming school governance in the hope of drafting a bill this year, but time is growing short.

“It is our belief that there is a high likelihood that some type of legislation will pass in this legislative session,” the leadership of the school boards association wrote to its membership this month. Further: “We believe that there are compelling reasons for change, in the interests of students and taxpayers.”

“What we’re trying to do is decide here in 2014 what is the best system for delivering education,” said Jeff Francis, director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

In New Hampshire, this idea is just starting to sink in. Mark Joyce, director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, gave a presentation earlier this month titled “The New Normal in Public Education.”

He noted that from 2000 to 2010, the number of households headed by someone 45 or older grew substantially, while the number of households headed by someone between the ages of 18 and 44 has declined. He concluded with an invitation to rethink public education in the Granite State.

In Cornish, at least, that work has already begun, with the formation of a committee last year to study further collaboration with Plainfield.

“The pressure’s sort of making everyone look at what all of these options are,” said William Palmer, who served on the Cornish School Board and is a member of the Cornish-Plainfield committee.

One of the options the Cornish School Board has begun to favor is making deep cuts in the school budget. At a recent public hearing on the proposed budget, a majority of the board adopted an entire menu of cuts brought up as possibilities by administrators.

“They’re cutting to the point where staff is going to be overworked,” said Palmer, whose two children attended Cornish Elementary.

Enrollment in Cornish is down to 113 this year, from 142 in the fall of 2003. According to a projection done by a consulting firm, enrollment will bottom out at 93 students in 2017, then return to 106 by 2023. The consultant’s report warns that statistical projections are less reliable in a school as small as Cornish Elementary.

The issue in Cornish is emblematic of what’s happening in the Twin States. Fewer families are moving in, and the families in town have fewer children.

“In the last 10 years, all of the houses around me were bought by people who are retired,” Palmer said.

By the end of the decade, Palmer said, Plainfield’s school population might have diminished enough to make room for Cornish students at Plainfield Elementary, which can accommodate 300 children.

“The fear is that we’d lose the main center of Cornish,” Palmer said. Cornish has had a central elementary school since 1950. “The flip side,” he added, “is if our student enrollment gets so low that we just can’t manage it, then it might make sense to stop fighting.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.