School numbers expected to go on declining
Enrollment projections for Martha's Vineyard public schools show a continuing downward trend over the next 10 years, according to a study recently released by the New England School Development Council (NESDC).
"One of the most telling charts, which is a trend diagram, appears to be showing that we hit our peak in 2000 and 2001," said superintendent of schools James Weiss, who discussed the study at a Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District (MVRHSD) school committee meeting on Jan. 14. However, he emphasized, it is important to look at trends over time, not at specific numbers.
According to the study, in the 2000-01 school year, enrollment was at a high of 2,435 students Island-wide, compared to 2,120 when the school enrollment census was taken on Oct. 1, 2007.
The trend diagram to which Mr. Weiss refers, accompanying this article, contains enrollment figures from the years 1997 through 2007, as well as projected figures for 2008 through 2012. Projections for the regional high school show enrollment dropping by 162 students, from 766 in 2007-08 to 604 in 2017-18, a 21 percent decline.
Given that the high school has experienced declining enrollment over the past three years, Mr. Weiss said the projections do not come as a surprise. However, the new study does show the decline will level off somewhat around 2009, Mr. Weiss said.
In a recent follow-up phone call, Mr. Weiss explained that NESDC updates the Island schools' enrollment projections annually, using data provided by his office, including the number of live births and building starts on Martha's Vineyard. Enrollment projections are based on a model NESDC uses called the Cohort Survival Model, Mr. Weiss said.
"It's a statistical model, and essentially what it means is they look at the number of people who survive from year to year - and I don't mean actually live, but who stay in the same group - and they do a projection over time with that," he said. "And using the statistical model, they can say, here's what should happen as we go forward."
Interestingly, projections for the Up-Island Regional School District, particularly West Tisbury School, indicate that enrollment will remain relatively flat, growing slightly between now and 2012, Mr. Weiss said. Looking to 2012, NESDC anticipates West Tisbury School will have 304 students, compared to 295 students on Oct. 1, 2007.
"For whatever reason, they [West Tisbury] appear to be having more kids remain in the birth to kindergarten ratio than one might have expected," he added. "It's 146 percent - so in other words, for every youngster that's born in West Tisbury, there is 1.46 of them entering kindergarten - it just means that people are moving there. The West Tisbury number indicates slight growth, relatively stable."
Mr. Weiss said NESDC cannot do a real projection for Chilmark because it is too small and the data wouldn't yield anything meaningful. Although enrollment projections were provided for Chilmark and show numbers remaining at around 48 to 50 pupils, Mr. Weiss said he wouldn't make any assumptions about Chilmark based on those projections. "But clearly the West Tisbury School projections, if you look at them over time, have been relatively accurate," he said.
"We'll use this [study] as a talking point with principals," Mr. Weiss added. In discussions with the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School school committee a few weeks ago, Mr. Weiss noted that the enrollment projections provide a helpful tool in staffing and budget decisions.
Laurie Halt, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, pointed out that as life on the Island becomes more expensive, it becomes more difficult to hire teachers. "It's difficult to maintain a high standard of education against the high cost of living on the Island," she said.
Mr. Weiss noted that in the last 10 to 12 years, Massachusetts has lost about 8 to 10 percent of its school population. However, as regional high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan pointed out, enrollment in Island schools may be affected by more than economic factors. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Regan recalled that the high school's enrollment increased.
"People came here and moved into their summer homes or sent their children here to live with their grandparents or relatives after 9-11 because they felt it was safer," she said.
The most recent Martha's Vineyard public schools census, taken on Oct. 1, 2007, showed a 2.3-percent decline in the number of students since 2006. Total public school enrollment has declined by eight percent since 2003. Conversely, the Island schools' operating budgets have continued to grow, with a 15.2-percent increase over the same time period.
In commenting about the effects of declining enrollment on budgets and curriculum during an interview with The Times last November, Mr. Weiss explained why a drop in student numbers does not always result in a corresponding drop in the budget. "You have to get to a critical mass, if you will, to have a reduction," he said. For example, whether a classroom teacher has 19 or 20 students, there will not be any savings in that teacher's salary unless enrollment decreases to a point where a teaching position may be eliminated.
"If you look at total enrollment, it may be down 20 students, but that may average out to one. In addition, a school system only has a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to curriculum," Mr. Weiss pointed out. "For example, just because you lose enrollment at the high school doesn't mean you're going to eliminate foreign language. You might have fewer teachers, but you're not going to eliminate the program."
Enrollment provided a crucial factor in making difficult decisions during the fiscal year 2009 budget process at the high school last December. For the first time, Ms. Regan recommended program cuts based on reduced course enrollment, which happened to be in the music department. She explained that course enrollment was one of the few objective measures she could use in determining where budget cuts could be made. She also recommended a reduction in the number of summer workdays for staff in the guidance department.
School leaders relented somewhat under pressure from parents, students, faculty, and the community by restoring some funds to the music and guidance departments, and offsetting the increase in the fiscal year 2009 budget with excess and deficiency funds (E&D). They also postponed the bonding of a new wastewater system for the school. In addition, Mr. Weiss agreed to give up the addition of a new facilities manager position to his staff.
As a result, the FY09 budget came in at a bottom line of $12,243,408, a 7.98-percent increase over the FY08 budget. However, school committee members made it clear in their discussions that tough budget decisions and the need to make cuts will be an ongoing reality in the face of declining enrollment and escalating costs.