Declining Enrollment is Real

Several years ago, the state funded the CTAP (Community Technical Assistant Program) studies for local towns as part of the mitigation for the Interstate 93 expansion project. But those studies were done prior to the economic slowdown of the past decade, and according to Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission Executive Director David Preece, who recently addressed the Derry Planning Board, they did not take into account “the drop in housing as a result of the recession….We assumed the growth in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000 was going to continue, and it hasn’t.”

Housing starts are coming back, but housing values are nowhere near where they were in the years immediately before the recession. And while the I-93 expansion likely will bring some population growth, assuming jobs follow, the demographics of the state’s population are changing and residents are getting older. Retirees don’t contribute children toward the need for large schools.

Combine that with the already declining enrollment in most school districts across the state, and you would expect a serious look at reducing teaching and other staff, combining classrooms, and in some cases, closing buildings, in light of the ever rising property tax.

But that rarely happens.

While school districts can’t avoid acknowledging falling enrollment, the cuts are too few to make a serious difference, and budgets continue to escalate.

We know that closing a school or redistricting students has emotional as well as fiscal components, and it should never be a quick fix or a shoot-from-the-hip response. The Timberlane Regional School District’s response to a request to lower the budget was to propose shuttering Sandown Central School, something that had not been part of the discussion that year.

The Derry Cooperative School District, on the other hand, has chosen a far better route – appointing a facilities committee to study a report the district contracted out on its buildings, and other reports done on class size. The committee will be looking at a variety of options, including reorganization, redistricting, changing the use of a facility or closing a school.

Except for Derry’s study committee, we haven’t seen any significant move to plan long term for the ongoing enrollment drop – and when Londonderry did eliminate classroom aides in its proposed budget this year, residents returned that cost at deliberative session.

Those seeking to pursue business as usual cite proposed housing developments as likely to add population.

Is that fact or wishful thinking?

Meanwhile, school budgets continue to rise, making the cost of owning a home out of reach of many of those potential newcomers – and keeping that home out of reach of many nearing or at retirement.

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