When it comes to enrollment, parents and community members in Madison and Old Lyme are debating whether it’s better to see the schools as half empty or half full.
“It sounds like you’re projecting a really rosy picture based on birthrates,” Madison resident Rick Fearon told the superintendent and the Board of Education in a community forum on Nov. 9. While projections show that Madison’s student population will increase over the next eight years, Fearon pointed out that the number of children in the district has been on a steady decline.
“One might argue irrespective of birth rates, a tax rate that has become sort of stifling has maybe led to this decline,” he said.
Another resident, Nancy Harris, had the opposite concern. She said that during the pandemic she had seen many families with young children moving into Madison.
“I would be concerned that we are going to move forward with a project that we’re going to outgrow,” said Harris.
The question goes back to the accuracy — or inaccuracy — of enrollment projections, and what should be done with them. School districts like Madison hire outside professionals who use a combination of factors to predict how many children will fill the classrooms in the next eight to 10 years.
The projections, which are updated on a yearly basis, can be tied to costly projects. In Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, the district is using enrollment projections to inform a facilities project that will cost between $41 and $51 million. In Madison, the enrollment numbers are being used to inform an $89.2 million school renewal plan set to go to the voters in February of 2022.
“It’s important to have a relatively good handle on the expected number of children coming into a school, coming into a grade, because schools need to plan and districts need to plan way out in advance in terms of hiring new staff or reconfiguring staffing,” said Morgaen Donaldson, a professor at the UConn Neag School of Education.
From the outside looking in,, predicting student enrollment can seem less like a science and more like divination.
Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, which has seen an unexpected uptick in enrollment over the last three years, is now considering expanding or reconfiguring its school buildings to compensate for possible overcrowding in its elementary schools.
In a special meeting in November, Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools, said that total district enrollment is expected to increase from the current 1,321 to 1,445 in five years, according to projections from the New England School Development Council.
The district also relies on enrollment projections from Peter Prowda, an independent consultant, whose projections also foresee an increase in student enrollment, albeit less steep — 1,401 students in five years and 1,436 in 10 years.
But documents provided by the district show that previous 5-year-out NESDEC projections and projections by Prowda underpredicted the enrollment over the last three years. Neviaser said during a community forum on Nov. 17 that consultants projecting enrollment were reluctant to overshoot.
“I believe that underestimating enrollment is a worse outcome than overestimating it,” Prowda wrote in his 2021 enrollment projections report to the district.
At the community forum, Neviaser said that the district has worked hard to recruit more students to come into the district. He also said that he believed the district’s ability to keep schools open throughout the 2020-21 school year worked to the district’s advantage.
“For many years we were seeing a decline in student enrollment,” said Neviaser. “We took it upon ourselves, as a board of education, to make a concerted effort to really recruit students and we slowly saw that tide shifting overtime.”
But at least one parent suggested that the district had overshot in its attempts to bring more young people to the schools.
“Over the last eight years, our taxpayers have been listening to all the reasons why we need to spend money to increase enrollment … and now, we have this presentation about that we have a problem, that there’s too many kids in town,” said Mona Colwell, a parent in the district. “It’s very difficult to swallow.”
Prowda’s report found that the enrollment in non-public schools in Lyme-Old Lyme has steadily decreased over the last decade, from 136 in 2010 to 60 in 2020. Enrollment in magnet and charter schools has also declined, from 24 students in 2014 to four students in 2021. Additionally, Prowda said that the rate of student migration into the district over the last five years was higher than it had ever been in the last 32 years.
Prowda said in his 2021 report that while Lyme-Old Lyme had strong growth over the last few years, he expected that growth to slow.
“There has been very solid in-migration of families with children in the past five years. I believe it is unlikely it can continue for ten years. My adjustment in the growth rates for the projection in 2027 to 2031 was designed to keep the projection from being overly optimistic,” wrote Prowda.
Data and methodology
According to Donaldson, one of the best predictors of how a firm will do in its projections are how accurate its projections have been in previous years. District administrators, she said, should ask contractors for proof of past success in enrollment projections. She said they should also inquire about the factors that the contractors consider and how they arrive at their predictions.
“As a taxpayer, I would want to know, what is the methodology that these contractors are using, and how are they getting the data, and what sort of assumptions are they making and how well have their decisions held up in the past?” she said
Firms that analyze enrollment data look at current and historical enrollment as well as a number of additional factors, which can include the number of births in town, home sales, the location of house purchases, sale prices and housing developments under construction. NESDEC’s reports include data projections from the U.S. Department of Education on regional enrollment expectations. Prowda looks at changes in labor force and high school dropout rates.
Neviaser told CT Examiner that Lyme-Old Lyme schools already relied on projections by NESDEC and Peter Prowda when he joined the district in 2012, and that they were the most commonly used sources for enrollment projections in Connecticut. Neviaser said the district pays Prowda $1,200 each year for projections. NESDEC provides the projections for free to its member districts — Neviaser said the yearly membership fee is $2,535.
“A number of years ago we did an analysis of their accuracy over time and found it to be within an acceptable range,” Neviaser explained in an email to CT Examiner.
Cooke told CT Examiner that Milone and MacBroom, the firm that provides Madison with enrollment projections, was recommended to them by several other districts, and that its demographer, Michael Zuba, was a local resident. He said the district would be switching to a new company, S/L/A/M, where Zuba has recently been hired.
In an April 6 meeting of the Madison Board of Education, Zuba, the firm’s then-director of planning, pointed out that the town reported 320 home sales in 2020, the highest number since 2004. In contrast, home sales the year before were at 208 — the lowest number since 2011. The prices of home sales also increased significantly last year.
“We use the enrollment history as sort of a basis to build what the future is going to look like, and then take into account all of those other factors — the demographics, the housing, the economy, the housing starts — and then make adjustments to the model,” said Zuba.
Donaldson said that the movement of a small group of people in or out of a town can have a large effect on small school districts.
“Little towns, it doesn’t take much to move the needle in terms of their enrollments,” said Donaldson.
Zuba said that the district has had a stable K-3 enrollment in the district from 2016-17 through 2019-20, which made him think that the steady decline the district had experienced had finished.
“An enrollment decline doesn’t happen forever, in our experience,” he said.
April 2021 data from Milone and MacBroom predicted that Madison will have an increase in enrollment from 2,441 as of this September to 2,526 in 10 years. That increase will mainly be driven by the younger grades. K-5 enrollment, which was 979 as of September, is predicted to increase to 1,069 students in 2025 and 1,123 in 2030.
Zuba also noted that the number of births in 2015, 2016 and 2017 were unusually steady, and that births had increased in the years since.
“I think it’s clear when we look at the data, that Madison is right at the bottom of the trough of the enrollment,” said Zuba.
The district’s projections from NESDEC are more modest: they estimate that total enrollment will decrease to 2,358 in 10 years. However, that decrease will be largely driven by the high school. NESDEC projections place K-5 enrollment at 1,006 in 2025 and 1,108 in 2030.
When these districts hear about potential enrollment increases, the question becomes whether it’s better to risk having too much space in their buildings, or not enough. Donaldson said it depends on how much the community is willing to invest in building projects. She said it also depends on the state of the school buildings.
“If you have a school building that’s in disrepair … if the facilities are not up to the task of educating kids and providing them the opportunities that they need right now, I would argue for the expansion or the renovation to really improve the quality of the facilities,” she said. “But if the facilities are in pretty decent shape and you’re not entirely certain about what’s going to happen 10 years out, then I would take the more cautious approach of waiting.”
Neviaser said at the meeting in November that the mechanical renovations and code upgrades to the school buildings had to happen regardless of how many students enter the schools.
“Whether it’s an enrollment issue or not an enrollment issue, we still need to do something to these schools,” said Neviaser.
Cooke told CT Examiner that he plans to discuss the updated enrollment report at the next board of education meeting on Dec. 14. Cooke said at a community forum in November that the enrollment increases being projected were “manageable” but that the district needed to address them.
“Doing nothing really does not become an option for us because of that enrollment increase,” he said.