WESTPORT — Though district-wide enrollment is projected to decrease by roughly 400 students in the coming five years, after already dropping significantly over the last decade, Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer does not believe shutting a school is a viable option.
The issue was raised at Monday’s Board of Education meeting, at which Don Kennedy, director of planning at the New England School Development Council, reviewed enrollment projections over the next five years.
According to Kennedy’s data, an estimated drop in enrollment from 5,576 students in 2017-18 to 5,165 in 2022-23 is possible.
“Taking that together, that may be the size of an elementary school. Is there a scenario where in, let’s say five years, where you close an elementary school?” Board of Education Chairman Michael Gordon asked Palmer.
“We are not going to be able to close a school. We need the space,” Palmer responded. “We are at a high level of utilization now.”
Though the schools have lower enrollment than in the past, Palmer said each of the five elementary schools is operating at around a 90 percent utilization rate, meaning existing space is crucially important. According to Palmer, changing trends in teaching to accommodate for special education students, technology, science labs, adaptive physical education, and more formalized intervention for students that require additional space have altered the way facilities are used.
“The art and science of teaching has progressed to the point that the facility needs have increased,” Palmer said.
Westport’s downward trend in enrollment is not unique among similar districts in the state, Kennedy said. Comparable schools in the area — which includes some of the state’s top-performing and most-affluent districts — are experiencing similar decreases.
According to Kennedy, the area’s high cost of living has contributed to an aging population by barring younger families from moving into town. The result is a higher median age in Westport than elsewhere in the state and decreasing numbers of yearly births.
“To a great degree, the population of Westport have already had their babies and they’ve stayed in Westport and they’re aging in place,” Kennedy said.
But low birth rates are not the only factor to look at. Westport also has high rates of students moving into the district between birth and kindergarten. According to Kennedy and data from the School Development Council, Westport is among the top 5 or 6 percent of districts in New England in terms of net move-ins, with 141 and 151 in 2017-18 and 2016-17, respectively.
Still, the declining numbers have prompted Palmer, based on previous enrollment projections, to consider the ways in which resources are allocated, mentioning at the Nov. 13 Board of Education meeting the presence of two assistant principals at each elementary school. Though the potential for administrative cuts was not mentioned directly at Monday’s meeting, Kennedy did note that the projections were broken down grade by grade to better help the district identify where administrators are, and will be, most needed.
“That becomes important in budgeting principals,” Kennedy said.