Trouble ahead for schools?

Committee warns of declining enrollment

AMHERST – Coming to terms with declining en­rollments might mean the three Amherst and Mont Vernon school districts will have to consolidate.

That was the conclusion of a committee charged with looking at how the districts could become more efficient as the student population and school revenue decline.

The findings will be presented at three public forums, the first at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, in the Souhegan High School theater.

Streamline Committee Chairman Frank Brown told the Amherst School Board last week that the committee came up with findings, not recommen­dations.

Student population de­clines are accelerating, he said, and over the next five years, total enroll­ment for the five schools will be down by more than 400 students.

"There are some seri­ous issues facing SAU 39," Brown said.

And it isn’t just Amherst; school populations across New Hampshire are losing enrollment, while costs are going up and state aid is going down, putting a lot of pressure on districts.

"Looking at a single district makes a lot of sense," and all of the schools’ principals see the benefits of a single district, he said.

Brown also said the current SAU operation is cumbersome and not optimal from standpoints of education quality and costs. Administrating three districts requires a lot of paperwork, with three audits, three bud­gets, and transfers of costs back and forth.

The committee has been working for about eight months. Brown presented its findings in a slideshow at an Amherst School Board meeting Oct. 20.

If the consolidation question goes on the March school district war­rants, it would have to pass all three districts. The Amherst and Mont Vernon articles would ask for the lower grades to be incor­porated into the Souhe­gan Cooperative District. Souhegan’s article would ask for the district to in­clude the other grades.

The new district would begin operating by July 2018.

Two alternatives that the committee dismissed, Brown told the Souhegan board members at their Oct. 6 meeting, were clos­ing Mont Vernon Village School and Amherst’s Clark School.

But if enrollment num­bers are anywhere near correct, he said, some of those hard choices are coming.

Consolidation would allow schools to balance class sizes by, for example, having Amherst children who live near Mont Ver­non go to Village School.

"If there is one district, you can start to look at those trade-offs," Brown said. "If not, those conver­sations don’t take place."

Souhegan board mem­ber Steve Coughlin agreed that Mont Vernon is going to face difficult decisions if enrollment projections continue.

They are "awful deci­sions in any direction," he said.

The community needs to see tangible examples of how losing school popula­tion and higher costs will affect the schools, Am­herst School Board mem­ber James Manning said.

For example, if enroll­ment goes down by 255 students and the district’s aren’t consolidated, "We’d lose X,Y and Z," he said.

The declining enroll­ment can easily be seen at Souhegan High School, he said, where the junior class has 220 kids, the sophomore class 185, and the freshman class 175.

Manning said New Hampshire’s census data indicates the state’s popu­lation is growing, but the number of people young­er than 65 is shrinking.

"There are a lot of forces at play here that could really undermine the quality of education," Manning said.

School administrators say they know consolida­tion would be a hard sell. Schools Superintendent Peter Warburton joked about buying a flak jacket for Brown to wear at the forums.

But the declining stu­dent population is a se­rious problem, he said, complimenting Brown on his "integrity, honesty and transparency."

Six years ago, Mont Ver­non Village School had 231 students. It’s now 178, and predictions indicate there will only be around 160 children in the near future.

"I am not selling this, but it’s a real and present issue," Warburton said.

He said ignoring it would be like "buying beachfront property and saying the sand is 300 feet," and there’s nothing to worry about.

One woman in the au­dience at the Amherst School Board meeting suggested population changes could be part of a cyclical pattern.

"In my neighborhood, there are empty nesters, and they will not be re­placed by empty nesters," she said.

Board Chairwoman Amy Facey said all of the flexibility and resource sharing that would be pos­sible with consolidation is something to consider.

"We will be in a listen­ing mode for the next two months," she said.

The video of the Oct. 20 Streamline Committee presentation can be found on the SAU 39 website.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.