- Associated Press - Sunday, March 15, 2015

NORWICH, Conn. (AP) - School districts statewide have been losing students rapidly over the last several years and according to state projections, declining enrollment is only going to get worse in the next decade.

Looking ahead, officials in towns across the region are exploring ways to deal with the issue, from regionalizing offerings, to repealing a state law that requires school districts to fund education budgets at least the same level every year or lose state aid to education dollars.

The Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut predicts the population of children between the ages of 5 and 19 in New London County will decrease by approximately 10 percent by 2025, which matches a projected statewide decline. The population of school-aged children in Windham County is forecast to decrease by 8.1 percent in the same timeframe.

In Salem, enrollment numbers have decreased 20 percent since 2008. Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher said small districts are at a disadvantage when enrollment declines.

“We have this issue of scale,” Butcher said. “We’re so small, but we still have to maintain the building, we still have to keep an administrative presence appropriate to our needs. The larger districts can sort of amortize their administrative costs over a larger number of students.”

Killingly has seen a steady decline in enrollment, with 200 fewer students since 2008. Superintendent Kevin Farr said unlike graduation rates, which call for proactive measures, addressing dropping enrollment requires a primarily defensive strategy.

“That can include adjusting staffing levels and eliminating staffing levels, usually through attrition,” Farr said. “For example, we’re looking at eliminating an elementary school position at Killingly Central because of a drop in grade 4 students. If I can get away with four sections with 20 students each, why have five teachers?”

Connecticut statute requires school districts to budget at least the same amount for education as it did in the previous fiscal year. The state can assess a $2 to $1 penalty for budgets that fall below the previous year’s spending level.

Schools serving fewer students than the previous year may qualify for partial relief at a rate of $3,000 for each empty seat, according to the State Department of Education. But the credit maxes out at 0.5 percent of the prior year’s budget.

Figures from an education department memo for the 2014-15 school year show Salem was only eligible to recoup $51,760, even though the school district’s enrollment decline would have added up to $96,060 without the cap.

Some Eastern Connecticut towns are feeling the effects of declining enrollment but are not looking at long-term solutions.

Griswold has lost 225 students since 2008. Superintendent Paul Smith credits the novelty of the elementary school, which opened in 2012, with stemming the decline by attracting families. And although declining enrollment isn’t enough to affect the district’s budgeting, Smith said “as time goes on and the elementary is not the brand-new school of the area that may change.”

Montville Superintendent Brian Levesque said his district has reduced staff as a result of the decline in enrollment. But he projects a slight increase in the number of kindergarten students in the district next year.

“This assumption is made on the knowledge that in recent years we have had a kindergarten class that was approximately 90 to 95 percent of the number of births in that year,” he said. With 163 births in 2010, he’s predicting 150 kindergarten students for the incoming class of 2015-16, which is 92 percent of the birth rate.

While the overall student population is decreasing throughout much of the region, enrollment at Norwich Free Academy is on the rise - thanks in large part to what Head of School David Klein has said is a comprehensive focus on expanding the school’s brand.

Enrollment for this academic year is 300 students above what officials had projected, marking the second straight year of strong gains for the endowed, independent academy.

Enrollment levels affect billing rates for sending towns. Last year, NFA announced it was increasing tuition by only 2 percent because of higher-than-projected attendance. Recently it announced a 2.5 percent tuition increase for the 2015-2016 school year.

To deal with declining enrollment, a number of options are being considered by school districts and other officials, including in the legislature.

State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, introduced one of approximately 15 bills addressing the minimum budget requirement. His bill would repeal the cap and increase the credit from $3,000 to $6,000 for each decline. Other bills run the gamut from raising the cap to 1 percent of the previous year’s education budget all the way to a complete repeal of the minimum budget requirement.

Butcher, who supports Jutila’s bill, said Salem has not yet strayed below the minimum budget requirement, but he’s concerned it will become necessary as enrollment continues to decline by an average of 20 students per year.

“What we want is the flexibility to move a little more fluidly with the budget. Once you set your budget to a certain level, you’re forever stuck with that budget unless you want to give up state money,” Butcher said.

Besides legislation, joining forces might be another viable option.

Jeff Otto, vice chairman of Brooklyn’s Board of Finance, recently told the Board of Education he would like Brooklyn to explore opportunities to consolidate with nearby towns.

“I prefer to make my own decisions rather than have them forced upon me,” Otto said. “I think this district should take the lead in talking to nearby towns.”

Officials in Chaplin, Hampton and Scotland are exploring shared pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade services that could result in savings of between $770,000 and more than $3 million annually, according to a study by Cheshire-based consulting firm Milone & MacBroom.

Charles Jaskiewicz, of Norwich, a member of the state Board of Education, said regionalization has been discussed for years but hasn’t gotten much traction.

“Nobody wants to have the discussion of how to reduce government in our state,” he said. “We need to regionalize or consolidate because small towns don’t need the replication of work. Why do little towns like Baltic, Preston, Bozrah, Franklin have to have their own superintendent when we can create a county-wide system?”

Bulletin reporters Adam Benson, Ryan Blessing and John Penney and freelance reporter Francesca Kefalas contributed.

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