Declining Populations, Enrollments, Call into Question Viability of Elementary Schools in Essex, Chester and Deep River

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The proposed Deep River Elementary School budget jumps by 5.08 percent this year compared with just 3.28 percent for Essex and 2.01 percent for Chester.

The increase for all three towns is driven primarily by the 5.5 to 8.5 percent increase in employee benefits, in particular the long-underfunded health insurance reserve. Re-negotiated union salaries and a town energy efficiency project loan are also contributing factors in the budget growth.

Yet, despite this large increase, Deep River’s $5.53 million budget brings the projected cost per pupil to $23,538 — that’s more than $3,000 less per pupil than Chester’s projected cost.

Essex, Chester and Deep River, which make up Regional School District 4 for grades 7 through 12, have been losing population, adding pressure to the current budget situation. Heading into the 2020-2021 school year, the student population for Region 4 is expected to drop by 5.2 percent, or 83 students.

Chester has led the way in this decline. Between 2014 and 2020, Chester Elementary lost more than 16 percent of its student population. With just 186 students enrolled in the school this year, class sizes have dropped to an average of 13 students.

By comparison, the average class size for elementary students in Essex is between 15 and 16 students. The total elementary student population in Essex is 298. Deep River has an average class size of 14, with a total enrollment of 235.

With further population declines in the three towns, these numbers call into question the viability of the three independent elementary school districts and schools.

“I think the towns view the schools as the center of community and part of their local identity. It’s a little of that sibling rivalry, but there is absolutely an identity around a neighborhood school,” explained Superintendent Brian White. “They’ve been grappling with this for a long time and I think Supervision could be a vehicle toward regionalization or it could be a vehicle toward preserving what we have.”

Across the three elementary school budgets, the shared Supervision District allocation now accounts for about 30 percent of each board’s overall budget. The Supervision budget has proportionally increased as technical services, administration, specials teachers and other shared services have moved from individual district budgets to the supervision district.

“For the foreseeable future we’re going to have some pretty small schools, so the real efficiencies do lie in consolidation of services and staff,” White said.

Over the next years the challenge of balancing demographic decline and budget growth means that the three towns will face difficult decisions regarding the sustainability of their small individual school districts.

“It really does come down to what are the board’s values,” White said. “You’re going to pay X amount just to have that place open no matter how many students are there.”

White’s goal is to have more information available to inform this decision making by the towns. This year, Region 4 will begin a facility-wide review to determine the state of all five schools, with an estimate of expenses moving forwards.

“We want to help give the community facts to have a responsible debate about this,” White said. “There’s been a lot of emotion, conjecture, hearsay about what it is or isn’t … but I haven’t seen that in past conversations about regionalization they’ve had the facts out in front of them, including what are appropriate class sizes, for example.”

The Chester Board of Education declined to comment for this story.

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