Merrimack’s increase in school enrollment bringing problems with parking

MERRIMACK – Due to an upward trend in the district’s enrollment during the last few years, Merrimack High School is experiencing issues in fulfilling a high-demand for student parking spaces.

During Monday’s school board meeting, Principal Sharon Putney and Assistant Principals Richard Zampieri and Peter Bergeron briefed board members on the current situation at the school.

In a school board meeting last month, Superintendent Mark McLaughlin said after a decrease in enrollment during the 2017-18 academic term, the district’s numbers climbed to 3,755, and in 2018-19, it was 3,789.

The enrollment, as of Oct. 1 was 3,915.

“The district K-12 enrollment is expected to rise by 30-50 students each year for the next several years, up to five years,” McLaughlin told school board members.

This was also confirmed by New England School Development Council’s Don Kennedy, who wrote in Merrimack’s report that although the district is experiencing 11 fewer births per year than in the past, there are many new families moving into the area.

Currently, the high school can offer parking permits for up to 332 spaces, with seniors taking first priority. This year, seniors were able to obtain their parking permit when they got their ID badges the week of Aug. 19 through Sept. 9. After Sept. 9, there was a drawing among the junior students who applied.

Assistant Principal Richard Zampieri discussed how the number of students and available parking spots has changed through the years during Monday’s meeting.

According to Zampieri, the school’s peak enrollment hit 1,688 students a few years ago.

“At that time, you had over 400 students in every class, which meant that most of the parking spots were going to seniors with a few left over for juniors. As enrollment declined more and more, juniors got spots to be part of that lottery to the point where it declined and we were able to allow a few sophomores to get permits back in the 2016-17 (school year) and the 2017-18 (school year),” Zampieri said.

This worked until the enrollment began to increase again. For the 2018-19 school year, there were no spaces for sophomores.

“This year, we had over 200 seniors ask for permits, again the remainder going to juniors. In the initial application pool, there were 165 juniors who wanted a permit. We pulled initially 120, about 20 of them did not meet the criteria…. So an additional 32 names were selected, 20 for the juniors from that pool, as well as the 12 spots that we had saved for our vocational students. That was done because our vocational students need to get on buses before the regular buses arrive to school,” Zampieri said.

Those who park in a spot without a permit must pay a $50 fine. In the past, students have also been able to make up the fine by participating in community service.

According to Assistant Superintendent for Business Matt Shevenell, the money made from selling parking permits, as well as fines, get booked as an estimated revenue for the general fund.

This covers the cost of the parking lot attendant, who Shevenell said is there for enforcement and security purposes.

During Monday’s meeting, McLaughlin acknowledged the struggles of the high school’s parking lot.

“We’re all in agreement that to have more parking at high school would be beneficial,” McLaughlin said.

He said one of the things that will be proposed through the capital improvement plan will be a study that would theoretically include the addition of more parking for students.

The town’s Planning and Building Committee Chair Rich Hendricks recently presented preliminary sketches on potential upgrades for the Merrimack High School campus, which also currently houses the district’s central office and the former Brentwood School building. The concept, which would eventually be evaluated by a professional engineer, would include a new central office building measuring 8,000 square feet, three tennis courts, more parking spaces and sidewalks.

“That obviously has impacts when it relates to future planning around everything from decisions we make now about what we pave and what we don’t pave, what we repair, what we don’t repair, lighting, because there is an effort there to tackle this in a fundamental redesign way as opposed to a Band-Aid problem,” McLaughlin said.

“That said, I think that in speaking with the administration of the high school and certainly (Shevenell), we feel like there are probably some adjustments to the current process that could be entertained… just because things were a certain way doesn’t mean they always have to be that way in the future. What it requires is just some planning and some thoughtful intake of information and then trying to do what we can with what we’ve got, always mindful that there’s a larger plan afoot,” McLaughlin said.

Board Chair Shannon Barnes said that in a recent meeting, McLaughlin said student enrollment is projected to increase by about 50 kids per year.

“It doesn’t mean they’re all going to start in kindergarten, so we know that the supply and demand issue that comes with everything we do in this district will definitely have to be addressed,” Barnes said. “We have more kids driving I would probably say based on the number of applications you’re getting, but then you’re also talking about more kids. I think that’s coming next. They will also be driving. That’s going to create an interesting situation it sounds like sooner than later.”

“The configuration of the high school parking lot as it exists now into the future will probably change drastically for the better, that’s what we’re hoping anyways,” Shevenell said in response to Barnes’ comment.

Grace Pecci may be reached at 603-594-1243, or at gpecci@nashuatelegraph.com.