By James Lomuscio
Despite enrollment drops in Westport’s elementary schools and crowding at Staples High Schools over the past five years, the trend will reverse itself in the next five years, Board of Education members heard tonight.
Donald G. Kennedy, senior staff member at the Marlborough, Mass.-based New England School Development Council (NESDEC), based the rosy forecast on “the move-in factor” due to the recession ending and the town remaining a desirable place to live.
“People want to be here and want to buy homes in Westport because they like the quality of life and they like the schools,” said Kennedy, who has been projecting Westport enrollments since at least 2005.
Sitting in on the meeting were members of the Board of Finance, taking note to work with the school board as it begins working on the 2017-18 operating budget.
“It (the decline) has plateaued, and it is at that point of the cycle where it would go up again,” Kennedy said.
He said that Westport is in the top 2 percent of New England communities with a consistent draw of new families.
“There are very few communities that get the move-ins that you do,” he said.
Meanwhile, current kindergarten through twelfth grade enrollment is 5,753—204 fewer students than five years ago.
“The main difference is that you’ve been graduating large classes in June and not replacing them,” Kennedy said.
He noted that at the top end, 477 Staples students graduated last year, and only 327 kindergarteners came into the school system, “a net difference of 158.”
Yet while the lower grades have seen declines, the school system has become top heavy with 1,854 students enrolled at Staples this year and 1,893 projected for next year, he said.
But that is poised to change with the new cycle, Kennedy said.
The lower elementary school population numbers are expected to grow and crowded Staples will start reversing itself as declines over the past five years catch up.
“These data are very important as we plan our future,” said Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer, adding that she wanted to make sure the school system was “not going to see more than 1,900 at the high school.
“I’d be very surprised if Staples grew any larger than it is now,” Kennedy said.
He said that after next year’s bump to 1,893 students, “then it will go down by 10 to 20 a year.”
“I think that’s going to trail off, and we could be down to the 1,700s and lower in the future because the kids are already in the school system,” he said.
When asked if the number of students due to move-ins would be offset by parents opting for private and parochial schools, Kennedy pointed out that “for a wealthy town, you have the largest percentage of students in public schools.”
“It is a compliment to the Westport schools,” he said.
Sheri Gordon of the Board of Finance asked if the move-in projection might be too rosy due to concerns about increased rail times to New York City, Connecticut’s tax hikes and a decrease in the number of teardowns.
“I dont know how soon the real estate will get stronger, but I don’t see it getting weaker,” Kennedy said.
Mark Mathias, school board member, remained confident about Kennedy’s forecast, saying that in past years his predictions have “been spot on.”
School Board Chairman Michael Gordon said the board would follow up with Kennedy as it did its budget planning.