Report: Enrollment in schools to stabilize

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A recent Colchester School District demographic study found that enrollment over the next 10 years will stabilize.

The report, compiled by McKibben Demographics, analyzes a variety of factors including resident fertility rate, in and out migration, class sizes moving through the district and the rate, magnitude and price of current home sales, among other things.

“Obtaining the demographic report is important for districts to do because we are trying to do long-term budgeting,” CSD superintendent Amy Minor said.

Having this information will also allow the district to be more accurate in determining future class sizes, setting staff schedules and planning renovations – like the ones being considered at Porter’s Point School and Union Memorial.

“If we are going to go down that path and potentially think about spending a significant amount of money renovating, I want to make sure that we’re going to build or renovate with the appropriate size building,” Minor said.

The district is also considering selling those two lots and building a new school as a third option, Minor added.

In terms of allocating staff, predicting consistent enrollment helps building principals communicate more accurately about how many teachers they need, and in what positions they will be needed.

A consistent enrollment rate also decreases the need for teachers to be reassigned in order to handle larger class sizes, or be reduced due to smaller classes.

“The continuity and quality of instruction declines a little bit when as a teacher you bump from grade level to grade level, especially at the elementary level,” Minor said.

For taxpayers and community members, Minor said, knowing enrollment will be steady over the next decade may help put the proposed school budget in perspective.

“Since our enrollment is not declining, that means that we need the teachers that we have, which is partly why you don’t see a decline in the school budget,” Minor said.

The primary factors influencing the forecasted enrollment through 2026, according to the study’s executive summary, is an increase in “empty nest” households turning over, a high number of existing housing units on the market and smaller graduating 12th grade classes.

The capacity for young people to get mortgages and buy homes, and the availability of homes in the district also plays a significant role in evaluating future enrollment, according to Jerome McKibben, who conducted the study.

“That’s your real main dynamic that will dictate population change,” McKibben said. “Right now you’ve got just enough housing activity going on to keep your enrollment fairly constant.”

The report also pointed to the out-migration of local 18 to 24-year-olds as having a crucial impact on the district’s stabilized enrollment. The population group accounts for the largest segment of people moving out of the district.

Although people in that age set have already moved through the school system in Colchester, McKibben said their leaving the district decreases the number of potential families starting in the area.

“Colchester is suffering from what I call the curse of a successful school district: high graduation rate and high test scores,” McKibben said, meaning most leave for post-secondary education.

In that same vein, he also noted a large number of those students don’t return to the district after they graduate.

The portion that do return, he said, are more likely to choose a metropolitan area, like Burlington, where they can rent apartments as opposed to buying homes.

“It’s not like 40 years ago when most people stayed, and those who left came back to the area,” McKibben said. “You don’t marry the boy or girl next door anymore; you marry the boy or the girl next dorm.”

Although the report’s accuracy is estimated to be plus or minus 2 percent – approximately 40 students – it is also based on a number of assumptions.

The study assumes businesses in the Colchester district will remain viable, unemployment rates in Chittenden County and the Burlington area will remain below 4.5 percent and that the 30-year fixed home mortgage will stay below 5 percent, among others.

The latter, McKibben said, could potentially affect the forecast and is something to watch closely.

“Keep an eye on that because it’s already gone up three-quarters of a point in the last four months,” he said. “If it goes to 5.1 or 5.2 [percent], it’s just like drag on the forecast. If it goes to 7 percent, it’s like hitting a brick wall because the mortgage approval rate will go through the floor.”

Although these changes are possible, McKibben noted it would take a major shift in the economic, social or political fabric to generate an effect large enough to severely skew enrollment forecasts.

“The last one we saw was the housing collapse in 2008,” he said. “You’d have to have like IBM completely pull out of the state. Or a 500, 600 employee company move in.”

The report also didn’t analyze pre-kindergarten or tuition students because it’s too difficult to predict accurate numbers for those sets, since many parents send their children to preschool where they work, not where they live, Minor said.

“For pre-K and for tuition students, there just isn’t that hard data,” she said.

Over the next few years, Minor plans to keep track of any major changes, like in class sizes, that could indicate the district may need to reevaluate the demographic study, or have it done again.

Typically, she said, former superintendents in Colchester have noticed a significant shift in demographics every five to seven years. McKibben Demographics will also follow up with the district every fall over three years.