By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — Despite national trends of rising public school enrollments, Vermont schools are struggling to balance high costs and shrinking student populations — a problem that could prove especially trying for Addison County schools, where the total number of students has dropped slightly faster than the state average.
Between 2000 and 2008, the county’s student population fell 11.6 percent. Statewide, public school enrollment dropped 10.5 percent over that same period. Nationally, enrollment for public primary and secondary schools over that eight-year stretch rose over 4 percent.
With state education funding dependent upon the number of students attending a school, falling enrollments can be problematic for officials charged with balancing school budgets. The revenue generated by enrollment supports overhead costs like transportation and building maintenance — costs that continue to go up, despite shrinking student populations.
“We definitely are paying attention to (these trends), with enrollment numbers going down and the cost still increasing,” said Jill Remick, the communications director for the Vermont Department of Education.
And in a year when school budgets are bound to be tight — and new legislation could make the budget approval process more difficult — the state’s spending-per-pupil yardstick could be more important than ever.
Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Business Manager Greg Burdick said that he is keeping his eye on that all-important spending-per-pupil number — the number against which the state measures every school’s spending plan.
Under Act 82, which goes into effect in 2009, if a school’s spending exceeds the state’s per-pupil allotment for spending, and is more than 1 percent over inflation, school boards will have to get voter approval for the total spending plan in two separate votes. The first vote is for the amount under the state average plus 1 percent over inflation, the second vote is for the balance of budgeted spending.
“That education spending per equalized pupil is huge for us,” said Burdick.
Meanwhile, shrinking student populations are having an impact not only on budgets, but also on classrooms.
The state already has the smallest average class size — roughly 11 students to every teacher — in the country, according to Remick. She said that enrollments are projected to continue to fall, but will level off in a few years.
According to Remick, those falling numbers are driven by the state’s low birth rate — the lowest in the country in 2005 — and the “graying of Vermont,” or the state’s high average age.
In individual schools — and particularly some of Addison County’s smaller schools — enrollments naturally fluctuate from year to year.
“Because we’re a small school, our enrollment does fluctuate,” said Georgette Childs, the principal at the Bridport Central School. The Bridport school’s enrollment fell by more than 50 students from 153 in 1999 to 99 in 2007 — though in the last few years, the fluctuations have been relatively small.
Childs said that, from her perspective, planning is less about looking at big picture trends than it is about looking at individual class sizes. When a class of students comes through that is particularly small, the school is faced with the decision of how best to serve those students.
In some cases — for instance, with this year’s batch of first- and second-graders — that means combining classrooms (a trend that Remick said is a common statewide solution to low enrollment numbers at small schools).
“It does make you think about what is the best way to then provide services, and what is the best way to be respectful of the taxpayers’ dollars,” said Childs.
A more extreme solution is to merge not just classrooms but schools — a move made by Hancock and Granville, who formed a joint school district in 2004 to reduce the number of multi-age classrooms the towns’ individual schools were hosting.
Under the merger, the communities essentially borrow from each others’ student populations — Granville hosting the joint district’s fifth- and sixth-graders, as well as its kindergarteners and preschool students, while Hancock’s school is home to area students in grades one through four.
The partnership let the two towns keep their elementary school students closer to home, and keep both schools open — though the schools still face rapidly declining student populations. The combined number of school-aged children in the two towns fell 36 percent between 2000 and 2007, from 53 students to 32.
This year, the joint district has 28 students.
“We really just continue to grapple with the fact that the school has been open for 208 years and it’s a historical piece of the town,” said the Village School Principal Mary Sue Crowley. But, Crowley said, dropping numbers prompt tough discussions about whether or not the schools can remain open.
“Some years we have more students than other years,” Crowley said. “It looks like the number will continue to decline.”
The towns have a small “baby boom” — but Crowley said they’re looking at a couple of lean years before that class of students will be school-age.
“It really has been and continues to be a numbers game,” she said. “But we are mustering on. We are continuing on with a full boat of curriculum options.”
Voters in Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury will be asked to make a similar decision this fall when they vote on a proposal to form a joint school district, with the end goal of building a single community school for all three towns. The elementary schools in all three towns are currently operating under capacity. A particularly striking example of falling student populations can be seen in the Leicester Central School, which has seen enrollment plummet from 112 students in 2000 to 59 last year — a 47 percent drop.
That enrollment drop has “pretty much leveled off,” said Carol Eckels, the principal at the Leicester Central School. And, in fact, recent births indicate that numbers at the school could be up to around 70 students in four or five years.
Nonetheless, Eckels said, declining enrollments did play a part in discussions about school mergers. A few years ago, the school board approached Neshobe Elementary School about possibly tuitioning students to the Brandon school, before striking up current conversations with Whiting and Sudbury.
Other schools in the area are holding strong — Mount Abraham Union High School, the Monkton Central School, Weybridge Elementary School, Whiting Village School, Vergennes Union High School and the Bingham Memorial School in Cornwall have all seen slight increases in their student bodies over the last eight years.
Education administrators — on both the local and state levels — are keeping a close eye on enrollment trends. Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease said that his district, which has experienced a declining enrollment over an extended period, is considering engaging in a long-term study to look at the population, and the direction in which trends could be heading.
Burdick’s counterpart in the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, Cathy Cannon, said that enrollment is also playing a part in budget planning for her Vergennes-area schools.
“It is a conversation that’s happening,” Cannon said. “We are talking about that and the implication that it might have in the future.”
But, as Burdick said — and as the state’s decision to forego enrollment predictions implies — making guesses about future enrollments is tricky business.
“We’ve been trying to keep an eye on it,” he said, but he admitted, “There’s an awful lot happening between birth and age five. There’s a lot of movement.”