Back to one middle school?

Faced with enrollment plummeting over the next 10 years and excess capacity at both middle school buildings, town and school officials are starting to talk about returning to a one-middle-school model.

A comprehensive enrollment study presented to the Board of Education by the consulting firm Milone & MacBroom on Nov. 12 projected a 20% decline across the district over the next 10 years, with the middle school suffering a 27.5% projected decrease — the largest of any tier in the system.

Selectman Andy Bodner raised the issue at a recent tri-board meeting with the selectmen, school and finance boards.

“According to the projections for four to five years, we will have excess capacity at both middle schools, so the question I posed at the tri-board meeting was, ‘What do you do with all that space?’” Mr. Bodner said Tuesday, Nov. 26. “That’s as far as the conversation went.

“All the projections indicate, under all economic scenarios presented by the school board’s consultant, that enrollment is going to keep falling. And even though the elementary school enrollment isn’t falling as much, it’s still decreasing, and that will affect the middle schools four or five years from now,” he continued. “I don’t know what the solution is. It might be one school or it might be something else, but if they have a lot of buildings with excess capacity then they have to do their job as a board to ensure they are efficiently using that space.”

The school board voted a couple of years ago to close one of the six elementary buildings when the declining kindergarten to fifth grade population reaches 2,000, but so far the numbers haven’t gotten there and school officials are waiting.

Karen Dewing, the district’s director of personnel, presented her district enrollment and class size report to the Board of Education on Monday, Nov. 25. She reported that both middle schools had declined since last year in actual enrollment numbers — down 14 students to 1,259 from 1,273 last year — though this fall’s middle school enrollments are over what was projected.

The declining enrollments sparked debate among board members about the feasibility of keeping two middle schools in the district.

“It’s time we start talking about going back to one middle school,” said board member John Palermo. “If you look forward four or five years, you will see that middle school numbers are only going to shrink more.”

When asked by the board, East Ridge Principal Martin Fiedler said that his school had 1,314 students before the change to two middle schools.

“We had six lunch waves with kids starting to eat at 10 in the morning — it was a complete mess,” Mr. Fiedler recalled.

East Ridge, which had seen an increase in actual enrollment over the previous three years, dropped eight students, from 777 last year to 769 this year, while Scotts Ridge continued to decline, from 496 in 2012-13 to 490 this year.

Scotts Ridge has dropped 92 students over the last four years, while overall middle school enrollment has declined 82 total students — 1,341 to 1,259 — since 2008-09.

And enrollments are likely to fall more, according to the district’s enrollment consultant, Mike Zuba, who presented the comprehensive report two weeks ago.

Despite increased migration, an uptick in the housing market and a stabilized economy, Mr. Zuba predicts recent historically low birth rates “will lead to a continued decline in overall enrollment over the next 10 years” at the middle school and high school levels.

However, he told the board that demographic analysis suggested that the town may have reached “their cyclical low” in number of births per year — 171 on average from 2008 to 2012, compared to 263 on average from 2000 to 2007 — and should expect an increase in annual births. But that is “highly dependent on economic and market conditions.”

At the tri-board meeting on Nov. 19, Board of Education vice chairwoman Irene Burgess noted that in addition to the changing data on births, the overall decline in enrollment has not happened as quickly as a series of demographers have been predicting in annual reports to the board.

“The reality is, we have not declined in enrollment at a rate anything like what’s predicted by our demographers,” she said.

After losing 79 students from 2011-12 to 2012-13 and 247 students over the last five years, the school district has seen its enrollment decrease flatten, dropping only four students — 5,233 to 5,229 — from last year to this year.

Despite the information presented by Mr. Zuba at its Nov. 12 meeting, the board is treading lightly.

“The data gives us a very good baseline without getting overly complicated — and I thought it was a very thorough presentation,” said school board Chairman Austin Drukker on Nov. 13. “But there are a lot of intangibles out there that have to be considered, so we can’t let this report dictate our legislation.”

He noted that elementary enrollment is based not just on births but on move-ins as well.

“One area in particular that we can’t know for sure about is Ridgefield births versus the number of young families who move to town with kids already born — that fluctuates every year,” Mr. Drukker said.

Mr. Zuba had presented a demographic overview of the town. He said Ridgefield’s situation appeared very similar to that of Greenwich, where Milone & MacBroom conducted a similar study and noticed a historical decline in birth rates from 2000 to 2010, only to see the town rebound in 2012.

He projected that Ridgefield would see a “significant increase” in the birth through kindergarten population in 2013-14 — a rebound from the 35% drop in births since 2007 — that “bears watching.”

“If this instance turns into a trend, projections will need to be adjusted upward accordingly, and the trough and rebound may occur earlier than projected,” Mr. Zuba wrote in his report. “However, one year does not make a trend.”

Breaking down the town’s demographics, he said that Ridgefield added roughly 1,000 people (4.2% increase), including approximately 167 students, from 2000 to 2010.

He predicted “flat to modest growth over the next decade,” with the town population rising from 24,638 in 2010 to 25,993 in 2020.

However, lower birth rates should still be anticipated, with an expected 14.3% decrease in child-bearing females, listed as ages 18 to 44.

Ms. Dewing said the bulk of the 65-student increase over what was projected at the elementary level this year came in the kindergarten class, which was 57 students more than the projected number. However, the kindergarten total was actually down 16 students from last year.

She confirmed that the district had seen a decline of 173 students — 7.8% — at the elementary schools since the 2008-09 school year.

Meanwhile, the high school saw a rise: up 26 students — 1,759 last year to 1,785 this year — after a decrease 16 students the year before.

“The high school is the only school in the district with an actual increase over the last five years,” Ms. Dewing said.

RHS’s enrollment was 1,781 in 2008-09.

On the other hand, all the three levels — elementary, middle and high school — were over projection, resulting in 96 more students in the district than the 5,133 students that were anticipated.

Class size was almost a non-issue last Monday night.

Ms. Dewing’s report said 95% of elementary classes were operating below the maximum class size.

Six out of the district’s 110 elementary classes — four of which were first grade classes at Farmingville — were listed “at the maximum class size,” while zero were reported as above the maximum.

The other two classes — a third grade class at Veterans Park and a fourth grade class at Scotland, which had been the center of controversy earlier this year — had each received a paraprofessional.

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    Scotts Ridge Middle School is down six students and there’s talk of closing the school? Seems like a witch hunt to me. Can’t close an elementary school, so now go after a middle school.

    Hey you want to save some money? Here’s an idea. Golf is on the decline. A drop of 15% over the last few years. Let’s close our municipal golf course. Certainly makes more sense than closing a school because of a 1% drop in the student population.

    By the way, according the the BOE’s own report, the number of middle school students is projected to go up over the next few years, NOT DOWN.

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