Public school enrollment inches lower
The Martha's Vineyard Public Schools census figures released last week show about a two percent decrease in enrollment, continuing a slight annual downward trend over the past five years.
The total number of students listed on the enrollment census taken October 1 was 2,169, down 50 students from last year. Five years ago, enrollment totaled 2,350, a more than 7 percent difference.
James Weiss, superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, cautioned against reading too much into one year's census figures. "We look for long-term trends, not just numbers from one year," he said. "I know some folks at some schools will be concerned by the numbers, but we will continue to look at them over the next few years."
Ups and downs
Of the six Island schools, Edgartown School, West Tisbury School, and the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) showed the biggest drop in numbers. Edgartown School is down 27 students, West Tisbury 26, and the high school 20.
Edgartown School principal Paul Dulac attributes part of his school's decrease to a smaller than expected kindergarten class. However, fewer school choice students transferred out this year, he said.
West Tisbury School compensated for decreased enrollment by reconfiguring the number of classes in some grades, replacing one first grade and one second grade class with a combined first and second grade class, adding a sixth grade class, and eliminating an eighth grade class.
Although the total of MVRHS students remains over 800, this was the first year the high school numbers dropped in five years. The incoming freshman class has 27 fewer than last year, although the ninth grade class usually includes an influx of some additional students transferring in from the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School and Falmouth Academy.
"Last year there were 20 students more than this year, so the question is whether we will continue to see a decline at the high school or not," Mr. Weiss said.
Oak Bluffs School, which gained 22 students this year after a decrease of 43 last year, illustrates his point about following trends over the long-term rather than the short-term. The kindergarten class grew from 25 to 33 this year. Second grade also took a leap to 60 students from 43 last year.
"One surprise we had was Oak Bluffs's growth," said Mr. Weiss. "We had anticipated and projected they would go down again. That was a surprise to us and we will continue to look at it."
Oak Bluffs School principal Laury Binney said 52 eighth graders graduated last spring, and he had anticipated an incoming kindergarten class of about 32, which came in at 33. However, the unexpected increase of 22 students "equates to an extra classroom," he pointed out.
As a result, Mr. Binney said, "We need to look at our staffing. We won't be asking for an additional teacher, that's for sure, but any plans to try to cut our program, I think there will be people who will say, how can you do that when you have 20 more students than last year? That's probably going to be where the dialogue goes in our budget discussions."
This year, 160 students are attending the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, a number that principal Bob Moore said "works well for us." Enrollment is capped by the state at nine percent of each Island school district's budget, which correlates to a certain number of students from each town. The school currently has a waiting list of 100.
Chilmark and Tisbury numbers remained close to last year's figures. Although Tisbury School gained about 15 new students, the total rose only by two.
Despite enrollment numbers that remain flat or drop, however, the cost of education continues to slowly rise, due to increased staffing needs, contractual obligations for teacher union contracts, and higher energy costs. This year, the superintendent's office is negotiating contracts with the public school teachers, support staff, secretaries, custodians, and cafeteria workers.
Trends and demographics
In looking at the census numbers since the year 2000, Mr. Weiss said, "The trend on the Island seems to be that enrollment is going down."
Statewide enrollment figures reflect a slight downward trend over the past few years, as well. The Massachusetts Department of Education web site lists the total public and charter school enrollments at 983,313 in '02-'03, 980,818 in '03-'04, 975,911 in '04-'05, and 972,371 in '05-'06.
Whether a decrease in Martha's Vineyard's school population can be linked to demographic changes Island-wide is something Island planners and real estate professionals also are considering.
Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) executive director Mark London said that in looking at population trends and demographics for developing an Island Plan, the MVC will be analyzing statistics that include real estate transactions.
Anecdotal information relayed to the MVC from various real estate agents on the Island suggests that many recent home sales involve year-round residents selling to seasonal residents, a factor that will affect the school population in the future, he said.
Real estate business owner Richard Rooney formerly served as a MVC staff planner and on the Up-Island Regional School District's School Advisory Council as president of the West Tisbury's Taxpayer Association. He said declining enrollment should not come as a surprise to anyone, because he remembers discussing the issue 10 years ago when the number of students in up-Island schools started to decline.
Between the Island's statutory limit on the number of houses allowed to be constructed in a year and the Land Bank, a publicly funded purchasing agency that acquires open space, the pool of available properties to buy is limited, Mr. Rooney explained.
"There is no doubt you have school age children's parents who are entry-level home buyers, and they are competing for limited available properties with a growing demographic of baby-boomers who are in their peak earning and retirement years," Mr. Rooney said. "It's an allocation of a finite resource through the pricing mechanism - that's the bottom line."
Moreover, there is a direct relationship between real estate and rental price increases and the number of people who move off-Island because they can no longer afford to live here, Mr. Rooney added, although there may be a lag time of about one year.