Sub­ur­ban schools see steep en­roll­ment drop

In­come, chang­ing life­styles, job mar­ket adds up to change

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ken Dixon, Linda Con­ner Lam­beck and Brian Zahn

While stu­dent en­roll­ment in Con­necti­cut’s ur­ban school districts is on the rise, the vast ma­jor­ity of sub­ur­ban and ru­ral districts are see­ing sharp de­clines, ac­cord­ing to a Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia anal­y­sis.

Per-pupil fund­ing ranges from a low of $12,650 in Dan­bury, which re­ported a 3.1 per­cent stu­dent pop­u­la­tion in­crease, to the high of $29,000 in the up­scale re­gional district com­pris­ing Bridge­wa­ter, Roxbury and Wash­ing­ton, where the cen­sus has fallen nearly 18 per­cent in the last five years, state records show.

In New Haven, which grew 5.2 per­cent in en­roll­ment from 2011 to 2015, the per-pupil fund­ing rate is $18,247. Will Clark, the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of New Haven Public Schools, said the growth has mostly been ex­pected.

A 2009 anal­y­sis by ed­u­ca­tion con­sul­tant Pe­ter Prowda pro­jected New Haven’s en­roll­ment would be 20,827 in 2015; the ac­tual num­ber was 21,725. Clark

said one rea­son the district may have at­tracted about 1,000 more stu­dents than Prowda pro­jected is be­cause the district added eight new magnet schools since 2010 and changed the themes of three ex­ist­ing mag­nets.

“We be­lieve that the port­fo­lio of school ap­proach and the choices of­fered create ex­cit­ing op­tions across the city at all lev­els for stu­dents,” Clark said in an email.

In Middletown, which like New Haven is one of the 30 low­est-per­form­ing districts in the state, en­roll­ment has fallen by nearly 8 per­cent, from 5,106 to 4,701 in five years. Per-pupil fund­ing is $15,666 an­nu­ally.

“The rea­son why is con­nected to a bunch of dif­fer­ent things. It’s a lot to do with the re­ces­sion, be­cause five years later it’s go­ing to af­fect your kinder­garten en­roll­ment,” said Middletown Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Pa­tri­cia Charles. “There was a 9 per­cent de­cline in ac­tual births from 2009, and there’s a pro­jec­tion it will be about 5 per­cent be­low the 2005-2009 av­er­age over the next five years.”

Just south of Dan­bury is the af­flu­ent town of Red­ding, where en­roll­ment has dropped more than 21 per­cent since 2012, even as the per-pupil cost reached nearly $23,000 a year.

Con­necti­cut’s his­toric lo­cally con­trolled ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems are at a cross­roads, while the state faces nearly con­tin­u­ous bud­get deficits and ris­ing teacher pen­sion obli­ga­tions.

“There’s a huge dif­fer­ence in that mile be­tween Dan­bury and Red­ding,” said Ju­dith L. Falaro, a for­mer New Haven high school prin­ci­pal who is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity. “Red­ding is much more af­flu­ent than Dan­bury, which is di­verse and gets a lot of peo­ple who com­mute to New York, but it has a lot of the same is­sues that other big cities have.”

Falaro said that the smaller cities of Dan­bury and Stam­ford have sim­i­lar de­mo­graph­ics and ed­u­ca­tional chal­lenges.

Hartford, Bridge­port and New Haven more com­plex prob­lems, in­clud­ing more wide­spread poverty, high prop­erty taxes, ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture and lan­guage ob­sta­cles. Mil­lenials, sad­dled with col­lege debt equal to monthly mort­gage pay­ments, are be­ing priced away from the towns where many grew up.

School re­trench­ment

“At­ten­dance is down, there is more spend­ing, and class sizes are shrink­ing,” said Joseph McGee, vice pres­i­dent of public pol­icy for the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Fair­field County, who has stud­ied the trend. “The teach­ing force is ag­ing, so they’re get­ting longevity ben­e­fits and they are more ed­u­cated, with ad­vanced de­grees” said McGee, who last year was cochair­man of the state Com­mis­sion on Eco­nomic Com­pet­i­tive­ness. “We’ve gone from ex­plo­sive school growth dur­ing the Baby Boom, now to school re­trench­ment.”

McGee be­lieves the en­roll­ment de­clines and ris­ing costs should fo­cus the public de­bate on the his­toric sanc­tity of lo­cal schoold­is­trict lines, and force lo­cal of­fi­cials to fi­nally con­sider con­sol­i­da­tion with neigh­bor­ing towns. Districts pay­ing more than $20,000 as year per stu­dent also include Green­wich, New Canaan, West­port, We­ston, Hart­land in up­per Litch­field County, and Joel Bar­low High School, which draws from Eas­ton and Red­ding.

“If towns want to tax them­selves for what is ba­si­cally a pri­vate-school ed­u­ca­tion, it’s their choice, but how much should the state tax­pay­ers be pick­ing up, par­tic­u­larly the teacher pen­sions?” McGee said. “This has all been hid­ing in plain sight, but peo­ple do not un­der­stand it.”

Of the 54 lo­cal and eight re­gional districts an­a­lyzed, only 11 gained stu­dents be­tween 2012 and 2016. The high­est was in New Haven, with its 5.2 per­cent in­crease. Bridge­port fol­lowed with a 4 per­cent hike, while Water­bury’s en­roll­ment bumped up by 3.8 per­cent. In up­per Litch­field County, school en­roll­ment dropped by about 17 per­cent in Winch­ester and Hart­land, and by nearly 20 per­cent in Barkham­sted and New Hartford.

In Torrington, where per-pupil fund­ing is $15,896 an­nu­ally, en­roll­ment fell 6.6 per­cent in five years. Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Denise Cle­mons said the fall­ing pop­u­la­tion has led the district to form an ad hoc school board com­mit­tee to look at the pos­si­bil­ity of clos­ing one or two of the five el­e­men­tary schools.

“There has been a de­cline in stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, and it may be rel­e­vant or re­lated to the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion,” she said. “(Torrington) was a fac­tory town, but most of the fac­to­ries are gone, there is an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion and it has a lot of ur­ban prob­lems, but be­cause of its pop­u­la­tion it doesn’t get the same grant fund­ing as larger cities.”

The cities of Hartford, Stam­ford, Nor­walk and Dan­bury re­ported higher school en­roll­ments. Pop­u­la­tions also in­creased slightly in a few of the state’s smaller, wealth­i­est en­claves, in­clud­ing Darien (1.1 per­cent), New Canaan (1.3 per­cent) and Wood­bridge (5 per­cent). Statewide, the public school en­roll­ment of 2010-11 of 564,499 fell to 541,736 by 2015-16, the most-cur­rent statis­tics avail­able.

Dou­ble-digit cen­sus re­duc­tions also were re­ported in Eas­ton, Mon­roe, Mil­ford, North Haven, North Bran­ford, Bethany, Madi­son, New­town, New Fair­field, Litch­field, and the two re­gional school districts for the towns of Durham and Mid­dle­field, and the re­gional Had­dam and Killing­worth district.

The en­roll­ment and fund­ing num­bers un­der­score the chal­lenges fac­ing ed­u­ca­tors as well as state of­fi­cials who for months have grap­pled with Con­necti­cut’s school-fund­ing for­mula and its im­pact on lo­cal prop­erty taxes at a time of a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar state deficit.

Choice, in­come and de­mo­graph­ics

Chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics, a widen­ing gap be­tween the poor and wealthy, and an an­nual bat­tle in the Gen­eral Assem­bly over per-pupil fund­ing is part of the rea­son. Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy faced a mas­sive back­lash in the Gen­eral Assem­bly this year when he pro­posed shift­ing $400 mil­lion in an­nual em­ployer pen­sion pay­ments from the state, back to the towns and cities where the teach­ers work.

Even with 10 per­cent to 20 per­cent en­roll­ment losses, towns want to main­tain lev­els of state ed­u­ca­tion aid, he com­plained.

“What you hear from them is ‘oh 10 per­cent is not enough for us to re­ally cut our costs.’” Mal­loy said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “But I imag­ine a 10 per­cent in­crease would be a big rea­son to raise your spend­ing.” He said that pla­cat­ing the folks back home seems the goal — and one of the short­com­ings — of the Gen­eral Assem­bly.

“So, all the non-prof­its, all the hos­pi­tals, all the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, all the other boards of ed­u­ca­tion, every­body has to be held harm­less of any (fund­ing) re­duc­tion, even when it would only re­flect that school districts have lost 20 per­cent of their pop­u­la­tion,” Mal­loy said. “That’s un­rea­son­able and that’s where we are.”

Daniel Long, se­nior ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy fel­low at Con­necti­cut Voices for Chil­dren in New Haven, said the dis­par­ity in Con­necti­cut’s ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing is grow­ing.

“These dis­par­i­ties in wealth and the need to pro­vide city ser­vices and fund city schools leads to an in­creased bur­den on fam­i­lies in the poor­est ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties,” he said. “In the largest five towns in the state, there has been over the last 10 years a de­cline in en­roll­ment by 2 per­cent. For the rest of the towns in the state, the de­cline has been about 14 per­cent.”

How­ever, the per capita fund­ing for those five largest towns has in­creased 13 per­cent in that time, and in other districts it has in­creased 35 per­cent, he said.

Long said some anec­do­tal rea­sons why en­roll­ment may be in­creas­ing in re­cent years are be­cause ur­ban cen­ters tend to be younger with higher birth rates.

“There’s a net mi­gra­tion out of Con­necti­cut, but there’s also a mi­gra­tion out of its ur­ban ar­eas as well,” he said. “There’s more go­ing on than just en­roll­ment trends.”

School of­fi­cials’ per­spec­tive

Lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors say that school choice, which has in­creased over the last 10 years, is part of the lo­cal cen­sus cal­cu­lus.

Middletown’s Charles said that district lost an in­creas­ing num­ber of stu­dents to other districts’ magnet schools be­gin­ning in 2012, which lev­eled out around 400 stu­dents in 2014.

Charles said she be­lieves the de­cline in en­roll­ment presents a fi­nan­cial worry for the district, but she thinks the best rem­edy is to im­prove the qual­ity of the schools.

“I think we need to con­tinue to look at our cur­ricu­lum and how we’re en­gag­ing stu­dents and par­ents, and mak­ing sure ev­ery­one feels they’re part of the process so they’re in­vested in the public schools,” she said.

Charles said there has been a some­what sur­pris­ing glim­mer of hope: kinder­garten en­roll­ment in Middletown is at its high­est in years. “I can’t ex­plain it based on the pro­jec­tion that was given to us, but it’s big­ger than we were ex­pect­ing,” she said.

This fall, Shel­ton is down an­other 65 stu­dents, most of whom are at­tend­ing Fairchild Wheeler in Bridge­port or one of New Haven’s magnet schools.

“The mar­ket­place for schools has changed con­sid­er­ably,” said Chris Clouet, Shel­ton’s school su­per­in­ten­dent, where over­all en­roll­ment has fallen more than 6 per­cent. “There are just more op­tions than there were.”

“I do think if the magnet schools hadn’t opened we would have a higher en­roll­ment in Shel­ton,” Clouet said, not­ing a re­cent in­crease in new hous­ing units. “We do an­tic­i­pate the shrink­ing will stop,” Clouet added.

Carol Mer­lone, school su­per­in­ten­dent in An­so­nia, also said she be­lieves open choice and magnet schools have con­trib­uted to the de­cline in the district’s en­roll­ment by 5.7 per­cent.

“This past year with the ren­o­va­tion of Em­mett O’Brien, some of our 8th graders who would have nor­mally come to AHS de­cided to try the tech­ni­cal route,” she said in an email.

Spend­ing per-pupil in An­so­nia is $13,217.

In Bridge­port, where the num­bers never stopped ris­ing, the in­crease is par­tially due to the in­ter-district magnet schools, which over five years has added 600 sub­ur­ban kids to the district’s ros­ter. At the same time, how­ever, Bridge­port lost 2,754 stu­dents it would other­wise be ed­u­cat­ing to six char­ter schools in the city.

Even though en­roll­ment hasn’t mat­tered much when the state cal­cu­lates its Ed­u­ca­tion Cost Shar­ing for­mula, it does matter in de­ter­min­ing how many teach­ers and class­rooms a district needs. “There are fewer women of child bear­ing age, peo­ple are get­ting older and the hous­ing stock is not turn­ing over as fast,” said James Richetelli, a for­mer Mil­ford mayor and now chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of its schools.

As Mil­ford’s en­roll­ment has shrunk by 10 per­cent over the past five years, its per-pupil ex­pen­di­ture has in­creased — to $18,732 — be­cause even though the district has cut staff, other ex­penses can’t be cut in pro­por­tion, Richetelli said.

The school pop­u­la­tion de­crease was 11.4 per­cent in Mon­roe, where Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent John Bat­tista said an ear­lier de­mo­graphic study pre­dicted the district would lose 100 stu­dents.

“The de­mog­ra­pher said that it was hap­pen­ing across the state,” Bat­tista said. “He looked at the house sales and hy­poth­e­sized that be­cause older res­i­dents were not sell­ing their homes, younger peo­ple with fam­i­lies were not mov­ing into the town.”

Still, the de­crease over the past two years has been smaller than was pre­dicted in Mon­roe.

Dan­bury Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Sal Pas­carella said that district’s in­crease is be­cause fam­i­lies choose to move there.

“It has a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion from di­verse back­grounds and a rep­u­ta­tion for pos­i­tive school cli­mate for fam­i­lies,’ Pas­carella said. “The city is also a safe city and the greater Dan­bury area pro­vides ac­cess to em­ploy­ment for adults while be­ing the most eco­nom­i­cally af­ford­able hous­ing in Fair­field county.”

Mal­loy, who has been push­ing the Gen­eral Assem­bly to pro­vide more fund­ing for city schools at the ex­pense of richer sub­urbs, stressed that a pend­ing court case is forc­ing Con­necti­cut to ad­dress racial im­pacts in the un­der­per­form­ing ur­ban districts.

“We asked Dan­bury, Stam­ford and Nor­walk to ed­u­cate a very high per­cent­age of our chil­dren that have special needs, who live in public hous­ing, who are poor or liv­ing near the poverty line,” Mal­loy said. “We have to sup­port those sys­tems in the same way that we sup­port a Hartford, or Bridge­port or New Haven, who we also ask to do those things as well. Those sys­tems need to be con­cen­trated on go­ing for­ward, to an even greater de­gree than we have in the past.”

Casey Cobb, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tional pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut’s Neag School of Ed­u­ca­tion, noted that among many pos­si­ble rea­sons lead­ing to the de­crease in en­roll­ment trends, in­clud­ing an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion and con­tin­u­ing out-mi­gra­tion stem­ming from the 2009 re­ces­sion, there is out-mi­gra­tion to other lo­cales that may be more pros­per­ous in terms of job mar­kets.

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