Soundings : Graying, not growing
Between census years, good numbers on the Vineyard's demographics are scarce. One set of data that's meticulously kept every year is the October 1 count of enrollments in our public schools.
Looking back, it's apparent now that every public school on Martha's Vineyard saw its highest enrollment in the same 10-year span. Enrollments peaked in 1995 at the Chilmark and Tisbury schools; in 1996 at Edgartown and West Tisbury; in 2000 at Oak Bluffs, and in 2005 at the regional high school. Enrollment across all the Vineyard public schools crested at 2,435 students in the year 2000.
At every Island public school this year, enrollments are down sharply from those historic peaks. West Tisbury School is down 30 percent, Edgartown School 22 percent. Tisbury School enrollment is down by 25 percent. At the high school, enrollment is down by 13 percent. Oak Bluffs School has lost 25 percent, and the Chilmark School has lost 36 percent of its enrollment since its peak back in 1995.
Total enrollment in the public schools this year is 2,081, down 15 percent in just eight years. (The Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School plays no part in this decline, because its enrollments have been flat.) Since the year 2000, the public schools have lost 354 students. After half a century of dramatic growth, we have lost, quite suddenly, the student body of an entire Island public school.
This is so new, we've scarcely begun talking about it. Across Martha's Vineyard, school enrollments increased by 15 percent in the 1960s, by 9 percent in the 1970s, 22 percent in the 1980s and 33 percent in the 1990s. Most of us have become accustomed to this trend as an enduring fact of Vineyard life. It's only recently that the enrollment tide has turned.
Ironically, it was in the year of Edgartown's peak enrollment, 432 students in 1996, that the town embarked on its ambitious new building project. By the time the $16-million new school opened in 2003, with a capacity of some 600 students, enrollment had fallen to 362. This year just 321 students are rattling around in the largest, most expensive municipal building in town history.
Meanwhile, if you're hungry to continue the Vineyard's avid conversation about growth, you'd best look to the other end of the demographic spectrum.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission, in its forums on growth and development this summer, cited surveys in which more than half of all seasonal residents said they anticipate living on the Vineyard year-round within five years. This, the Martha's Vineyard Commission noted in its Power Point show, would increase the Vineyard's population by 20,000 people, more than doubling it. This prediction caught the right trend, but seems vastly to have overstated it. What the slide show didn't mention is that these rather alarming survey numbers were gathered in 2003 and 2004, and something must have been wrong, because those 20,000 people haven't arrived.
More recently, the Vineyard economic profile, prepared by Jim Ryan for the Martha's Vineyard Commission's Island Plan project, has developed some harder, albeit less apocalyptic, numbers on growth in the older population.
Mr. Ryan's study found that while Martha's Vineyard's percentages of young and working-age people are falling, our population of seniors over age 65 is rising faster than averages across the state. Looking ahead, the study predicts "a much larger senior population," projecting that seniors living on Martha's Vineyard will increase by 81 percent, from 2,600 in 2007 to 4,700 in 2020. Discussing the economic implications of this, the report concludes: "Finding workers to serve the rapidly growing senior population will be a major consideration for Martha's Vineyard over the next two decades."
Okay, so perhaps 20,000 retirees aren't coming on the next boat, but there's little doubt that we're in for a historic shift in the human ecology of Martha's Vineyard. Working families, unable to afford the high cost of Island life, are departing and taking their children with them. And we're facing an onslaught of retiring Baby Boomers.
The Martha's Vineyard economy will be shaped in years ahead by the fact that our community is graying, not growing. The past generation has seen major school building projects across Martha's Vineyard, but that era is now over. The challenge ahead is that when retirees settle here, they'll need people to wait on them, plumbers and housekeepers and physicians and attorneys and stockbrokers. Who's going to be around to serve these older people?