MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board has begun to discuss ways of streamlining Middlebury Union high and middle schools’ staffing, programs and facilities in anticipation of a student body that’s pegged to decline substantially during the next four years.
Information provided by the Addison Central Supervisory Union office indicates that while the combined total enrollment of the ACSU’s seven elementary schools is projected to remain constant at around 790 students between now and the 2016-2017 academic year, student numbers are expected to decline from the current 316 to 234, or 26 percent, at MUMS, and from the current 601 to 545, or 9 percent, at MUHS, during that same timeframe.
It’s sobering information for UD-3 board members and administrators, who know they will have to make some significant cuts and program adjustments during the coming years to reflect the ongoing decline in student numbers. The UD-3 board earlier this month held its first of what it says will be several meetings this year to brainstorm ways to pare back expenses in a manner that will minimize impacts on student learning and potential teacher layoffs.
“Part of what we are trying to understand now is at what point do we need to make the restructuring changes that we know are imminent,” MUMS Principal Patrick Reen told the board. “We are trying to figure out how best to do that, and do it as much as possible through attrition.”
Estimates provided by the ACSU indicate:
• The number of 7th graders at MUMS is slated to decline from the current 175 students to 112 this fall. The total MUMS enrollment is pegged to decline from the current 316 to 287 by this fall.
• The MUMS population is slated to make its biggest short-term drop — from 287 students to 239 — between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years. The 7th and 8th grade classes are expected to each number 117 students by 2016.
• At MUHS, the grades 9-12 population is expected to increase from 596 in 2013-14, to 622 in 2014-15. But the student population is pegged to decline from 622 during 2014-15, to 581 during 2015-16, before waning again to 545 during 2016-17.
• The ACSU served a combined total of 118 kindergartners this school year. That number is projected to decline to 110 during the 2016-17 academic year.
• MUHS was educating 742 students in 2003-2004. Current estimates call for the school to serve 545 students by 2016-17.
Administrators noted that the aforementioned numbers could trend higher if a bunch of new families move into the ACSU. Numbers could also be influenced by local families who might transfer their children from private schools to public schools. Communities like Hancock and Granville, which do not have local schools of their own, could also increasingly look to the ACSU for their children’s schooling. And the state is poised to offer more public school choice across supervisory union boundaries, which could also inflate the ACSU’s numbers in the future.
The ACSU includes the elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge, as well as MUMS and MUHS.
“We have a great program here, and so we can possibly be competitive with everyone,” ACSU Superintendent Gail Conley said.
But school officials need to plan based on the best current enrollment information, and it’s not heartening.
Reen explained that MUMS currently divides its students into four learning “teams” that are each coordinated by seven or eight teachers and staff. There is a real possibility, he said, that the number of teams will have to be reduced as a result of having fewer students who will in turn require fewer teachers.
At this point, prospective new MUMS teachers are told in advance about the potential tenuous nature of their positions. The district’s reduction in force policy, governed by contract, calls for the least tenured teachers to be let go first.
“We are having conversations up front that we can’t make any guarantees because of declining enrollment,” Reen said.
The district has an early retirement incentive program through which it will attempt to trigger some early departures from senior staff. The expectation is that some of the posts would go unfilled, or would be filled will less veteran teachers at lower salaries. And it’s likely new hires will be expected to be certified in more than one subject in order to maximize their teaching availability within the schools.
At MUHS, officials will need to take a look at reducing the number of course sections to reflect the lower student numbers. And some stand-alone courses might have to be eliminated, according to Conley and high school Principal Bill Lawson.
Currently, MUHS enjoys a reputation of offering diverse subjects, including a number of Advanced Placement courses. He noted the school currently has graduates attending such schools as Harvard and Yale, a trend he wants to see continue.
“The lower the population, the harder it is to maintain the diversity of programming for students,” Lawson said. Taking advantage of Virtual High School or distance learning opportunities could help, he said.
Lawson anticipates some teacher departures from MUHS within the next two years.
“Perhaps we will not replace all the teachers who leave,” he said.
Bob Ritter, a UD-3 board representative from Middlebury, noted staffing and facilities are among the few areas in which major budget impacts can be made. He asked whether some teachers could work at both MUHS and MUMS, and whether the two schools could be managed by a common (and smaller) administration.
Other board members raised the notion of consolidating grades 7 through 12 in one building. That could be a tough sell, as the MUMS building was erected less than 20 years ago and was last year topped with a new roof. And Lawson said that even with the two buildings, there is still a shortage of gym space.
Some board members believe the path to a leaner school system must run through some consolidations in school governance. To that end, the ACSU Study Committee is studying the formation of a Regional Education District, or RED, that would reduce the current nine school boards that govern ACSU schools. District voters within less than a year will be given a chance to vote on whether to form an RED.
“That change in governance would give us the flexibility to look at how to use the middle school differently,” said UD-3 board member Jerry Shedd of Ripton. “We can look down the road and think big if we have that flexibility.”
Other area schools are also grappling with lower student number projections. Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien said he expects the K-6 enrollment in his Vergennes-area district to drop by 70 students from 559 in the 2012-2013 school year to 489 in the 2018-2019 year. He expects the 7-12 enrollment at Vergennes Union High School to drop by 65 students, from 554 to 489, during that same timeframe. That amounts to a total reduction of 135, from 1,113 to 978, or 12 percent.
“We won’t see 100 in the next six years in any graduating class,” O’Brien said of VUHS.
Estimates provided by the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union cover grades 7-12. Those numbers for the Bristol-area district indicate enrollment will decline from the current 753 students to 730, or 3 percent, in 2016-17. Numbers are expected to go as low as 699 in 2015-16, then rebound.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.