News of a continuing decline in Vineyard school enrollments, forecast by the New England School Development Council (NESDC), puts school lay and professional leadership in a tough position. But they are not alone. Island taxpayers and voters are in the soup too.
It's not that these projections are bankable. Projections rarely are. But, neither can they, and the implications for policy, organization, mission, and financing be ignored. After all, the numbers suggest a nearly two decades long decline, not uniform across the discrete units in the school system - for instance, some growth appears likely at the West Tisbury School - but unequivocal in general terms. Plus, these trends are similar to those statewide: during the past decade or so, Massachusetts has lost eight to ten percent of its school population.
James Weiss, the Vineyard schools superintendent, described the enrollment projections as "a talking point" for his discussions with the school principals who report to him. Mr. Weiss is a wise and experienced administrator, but he is unlikely to have his hand on the helm during the entire period reflected in these projections. He has arrived at a moment when the trends have revealed themselves but the future is, as usual, only uncertainly sketched.
What to do? That is a question that cannot be left to the education professionals on the Island alone, or even to the elected members of the school committees. Voters know that the steady decline in enrollments has been offset by relentless, significant, annual increases in education spending. Total enrollment has declined by eight percent since 2003, while budgets have grown 15.2 percent.
As Mr. Weiss explains, reasonably enough, a drop in enrollment cannot always lead to a lowering of the spending.
"You have to get to a critical mass, if you will, to have a reduction," he says. Fair enough, fewer students do not assure reduced costs, but must it always result in higher ones? Here are some questions, for the community, not just the educators: Is this really just an annual budget problem, or is some long-term planning needed? Who should participate in the planning work? (And, don't say the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Its planning focus, typically, can approach no such vital relevancy.)
Does the school system spend wisely and efficiently? Is its educational mission cost effective? Can it be reorganized to more efficiently use its personnel and capital assets? Is there a better way to apportion costs among the towns? (After all, the toll of declining enrollments and rising costs has already contributed to the continuing dispute among members of the Up-Island school region and recently among all six towns over the state's new regional school funding formula. It's a debate that promises to drag on and do significant harm to inter-municipal relationships beyond education concerns.)
If the high cost of living and the impossible cost of housing are immense hurdles, and if the dedicated but insufficient efforts to expand the affordable housing stock are, as they certainly seem to be, unlikely to meet the challenges, what must the school system do to influence changes that can ease the burden on faculty and staff? For instance, can the consolidation of education services help to create savings that could in turn be used to retain and attract exceptional teachers and administrators?
Here's a menu of issues that must not be brushed aside.