Upper Valley school districts look to enrollment in planning for the future

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-22-2024 9:00 PM

In 1998, voters of Orford, Fairlee, Vershire and West Fairlee approved a plan to form Rivendell, an interstate school district, with the intent to pool their resources to provide an equitable and sustainable education system for their communities.

The communities constructed Westshire Elementary School, a school for students in grades K-5 living in West Fairlee and Vershire. An addition was built to Orford Academy — now named Rivendell Academy — to create a middle and high school for the four communities.

“It was very much a grassroots effort, including school and community members,” said Rivendell School Board Chairwoman Kathy Hooke. “There is a real sense of community ownership in our district.”

The Rivendell district opened in 2000 with about 582 students, including 32 students from neighboring towns. The intent was in part to make education more cost-effective in the four communities and to create opportunities for academic and extracurricular programs that would be harder for the individual towns to afford.

But two decades of declining enrollment has reduced the district’s student population to 422, with 144 students at Samuel Morey Elementary School, 74 at Westshire and 234 at Rivendell Academy.

Changing student populations, aging school buildings and rising education costs are driving many school districts in the Upper Valley to reexamine their facilities and organizational structures for future sustainability. Some communities, impacted by small student populations are considering consolidations of programs or grades. Others have to consider costly building renovations or replacements while weathering uncertainty about how their populations may change.

Last November, the Rivendell School Board approved a three-year reconfiguration plan to rein in costs. The plan includes transitioning to multi-age classrooms in the elementary schools, and developing a plan to close Samuel Morey and moving the students there to Rivendell Academy.

“After seeing the budget pass by only a slim margin in March (2023) and hearing from constituents overwhelmed by taxes, we knew we had to do something,” Hooke wrote in a letter to the community.

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In Rivendell, switching to a multi-age teaching model could save the district up to $600,000 in staffing costs a year, according to the district plan.

The district plans to implement training to additional teachers next academic year and to move to multi-age classrooms in fiscal year 2026.

Hooke said the board saw a need for fiscal change after hearing concerns from residents about the tax impacts of education spending.

The district’s current operating budget of $14.7 million, increased spending by 10% from the previous year.

The board’s proposed budget for the 2024-2025 school year is $15.7 million — a 4% increase from the current year.

“We felt if we didn’t start to think about big change (that) we would have to start considering cuts to things that we consider essential (such as) the after-school and outdoor education programs,” Hooke said in an interview.

Samuel Morey, built in the 1950s, is the oldest facility in the district. The board, in developing its plan to close the building, factored in the building’s age and the long-term costs to maintain it, Hooke said.

Hooke said the district is still “in the very early stages” of planning the school’s closure, which would be implemented in fiscal year 2027 — if the district decides to proceed.

“We want to do research and decide if this is a viable option for the community.” Hooke said.

The board is assigning volunteers to sub-committees to research logistics, financial costs, the voting procedure to authorize a building closure and questions not addressed in the district’s articles of agreement, such as the sale of buildings and the handling of those proceeds.

“It’s hard to talk about changes to schools,” Hooke said. “Even though it looks like we are planning way into the future, It’s especially hard for the teachers to be caught in the middle of it.”

Bleak national trend

Declining student enrollments pose greater financial challenges for schools because education funding in many states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, is distributed, at least in part, based on the number of students in a school district.

In 2022, New Hampshire’s education contribution to schools, known as Adequacy Aid, was $8.6 million less than the previous fiscal year due to one-year drop in statewide enrollment to 161,755, down from 163,600 students the previous year.

Meanwhile school districts still need to fund the same staffing and infrastructure expenses, only with less revenue.

A kindergarten class will still need one teacher, whether it has 15 students or 25, said Noah Telerski, of the New Hampshire Funding Fairness Project, an advocacy group for state funding reform.

School enrollments in Vermont and New Hampshire have been in decline for two decades and that trend shows no sign of reversing.

New Hampshire’s student enrollment this year, 165,095 students, is more than 2,000 students less than the previous academic year, or a 1.4% decline, the state Department of Education reported last November. Since 2002 student enrollment in the state has dropped 20%, a decrease of over 42,000 students.

With about half as many students, Vermont — current enrollment 82,900 — has declined by 11%, or more than 10,000 students, since 2004, according to Vermont Agency of Education data.

Declining student enrollments are a nationwide problem that stems from falling birthrates, which have been on a downward trajectory for 50 years, said Jerome McKibben, a demographic researcher who conducted an enrollment study for the Lebanon School District in 2016.

“I expect 75% of the country’s school districts will probably lose enrollment over the next decade,” McKibben said in a phone interview.

Population growth is largely influenced by “age structure,” or the age distribution of people in a place, McKibben said. Age distributions are affected largely by birth or fertility rates, as well as by migration.

For the past decade, both Vermont and New Hampshire consistently had more deaths each year than births, according to U.S. Census data. The median age in both states — about 43 years — is the second highest in the country, surpassed only by Maine.

Vermont’s fertility rate, 44.9 births per 1,000 women in 2021, is the lowest in the country, while New Hampshire’s 49.9 births per 1,000 is tied for the fifth lowest with Maine, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Aging school facilities are another issue plaguing districts, McKibben said. “A huge system of schools” was built between the 1950s and early 1970s, when the population was growing fast.

“Now these buildings are 50 to 70 years old and (many) districts don’t need them anymore,” he said.

Neighbors may unite

In Cornish and Plainfield, neighboring communities with historically small student populations, are considering pooling their resources as a means to better manage education costs. In recent years, enrollments in the two communities have been trending in different directions.

Plainfield’s current enrollment of 216 is down about 100 students from the early 2000s, including a decrease of 20 students since 2017.

Cornish, where enrollment was at an all-time low of 81 students in 2015, has since bounced back to nearly 150 students.

Cornish’s growth is driven by the district’s preschool program, which opened in 2015, and drew young families to town, Superintendent Sydney Leggett said in a phone interview.

Leggett said the district does not expect to see much further growth, mostly due to the limited supply of housing.

“There’s just not the (home) inventory,” Leggett said. “There are people who want to move to our district but run across the problem of finding affordable housing options.”

At their respective Town Meetings this month, Cornish and Plainfield voters approved the creation of two joint planning committees. One committee will study the feasibility of merging Cornish and Plainfield into a cooperative school district.

second committee will consider collaborating to educate students in grades 6-8, including possibly consolidating students in one school.

The town’s school districts already share a superintendent, a financial director and other administrative services. The cooperative school district study will examine further sharing expenses and resources to lower overall costs. Cooperative districts can find cost savings by sharing staffing or contracted services, Leggett said.

Consolidating the students will require building an addition to the Plainfield school to serve as the middle school. A middle school study conducted in 2023 estimated a cost of $1.5 million to build a 3,000-square-foot addition. The study also recommended a hire of three additional teachers and a part-time administrator at an estimated cost of $387,000.

Back to drawing board

Mountain Views Supervisory Union, previously known as Windsor Central Supervisory Union, contracted a study in 2021 when the district began preparing a plan for a new middle and high school building in Woodstock. (A $99 million bond proposal failed at Town Meeting on March 5, with 55% of voters in opposition.)

The supervisory union includes Woodstock, Pomfret, Barnard, Bridgewater, Reading, Killington, Pittsfield and Plymouth.

Since 2018, enrollment in the district has increased by 90 students, which is largely attributed to the district’s universal pre-K program, Superintendent Sherry Sousa said.

Pre-K enrollment has more than doubled, from 39 children in the 2015-2016 academic year to 86 children this year.

“It has drawn a lot of families to the community,” Sousa said. “And we have a waitlist of about 30 students for next year. So we will be opening a second pre-K classroom at Woodstock Elementary School (for up to 20 students).”

An enrollment study in 2020-2021 projected a net gain of approximately 35 students in the district by 2030 — a 3.5% increase.

The projections were based on birth rates, student retention and migration, according to the study.

“I think what’s important, rather than the specific (projection) numbers, is that they see us having indicators that we will continue to grow,” Sousa said. “We feel like we are not one of those towns described as losing student enrollment.”

To continue to grow, the district relies on attracting families through its high school, which is attended by students from 20 neighboring communities, including Hartland, Weathersfield and Sharon.

The existing high school building, constructed in 1956, is a two-building complex that serves 450 students in grades 7-12.

The building has held up to 600 students in past years, Sousa said.

A facility condition report by the state Agency of Education in 2022 found the building in poor condition, with deficiencies in its plumbing, heating and electrical systems, deteriorating roof and floors and inadequate fire safety systems.

The building also does not comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

The building proposal voters rejected earlier this month would have a capacity for 650 students.

Master planning

The Hartford School District, whose buildings are in critical need of repair and upgrades, seeks to fund a demographics and enrollment study to inform how the district’s facility needs may change in the future.

In Hartford, enrollment has declined overall in the last decade, from 1,645 students in 2014 to a record low of 1,426 students in 2021. But the district since has seen consecutive years of enrollment growth, putting the town-wide student body back near 1,500.

With multiple housing projects expected to bring over 200 new residential units to the town in the coming months, district officials believe that enrollment growth could continue.

“The town has experienced somewhat of a renaissance over the last decade and we are still growing in commercial development,” said Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi. “The revitalization of the downtown area and the addition of several restaurants and entertainment venues have helped.”

As part of a proposed $21.8 million facilities improvement bond, the district is seeking $500,000 to fund two studies, including a $150,000 student enrollment forecast.

The second study will incorporate the enrollment projections to create a comprehensive district-wide facilities plan to help manage the Hartford’s school buildings for the next 20 years.

The bond proposal is primarily intended to fund repairs and infrastructure improvements in the district’s six schools and its administrative buildings.

In planning repairs, the district wants to factor how the needed capacities or use of buildings may change in the future. The intent is to be more cost-effective in maintaining facilities, DeBalsi said.

“Master facility planning allows for careful consideration of the needs and requirements of facilities, leading to improved quality in design, construction and maintenance,” DeBalsi said. “It also helps to prioritize and properly order needed work and eliminates costly re-work.”

One of the district’s last major building projects was the $3.6 million White River School renovation in 2013, which included upgrades to the heating system, gym roof, bathrooms and flooring of the 100-plus year-old facility. Since 2013, enrollment in the elementary school, which serves pre-K and grades K-5, has declined from 226 students to 204.

Enrollment and demographics studies can also help schools anticipate the types of educational programs, resources and staffing may be needed in the future.

“The growth impacts every aspect of the school system,” DeBalsi said. “It is not just about the space the children will need to learn (but) about what we want them to learn (as well as) where and how. … We want to have quality information to make informed programming and delivery decisions.”

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.