Declining enrollments means more choice for districts without high schools

Last modified: 3/26/2013 8:03:23 AM
In 2002, when Dunbarton first considered taking its students out of Goffstown High School, it was met with the same response from every alternative school it was considering: There’s no room here for you.

Fast-forward to now: Dunbarton voters last week approved a contract with Bow, but only after sorting through initial interest from Concord, Hopkinton and John Stark, as well as Goffstown.

“Everyone wanted us to talk with them,” said school board Chairman Rene Ouellet.

It’s not the only district without a high school that suddenly has schools clamoring for its kids.

Deerfield, whose only option was Concord back in 2004, now has offers from Pembroke Academy and Oyster River. Rollinsford, whose kids are currently at Somersworth High, was courted by Dover and Oyster River but has chosen to send its students to a high school in Maine. Barrington is also looking at Oyster River, as well as Coe-Brown Academy in Northwood, Dover and Rochester. Hooksett, in a contract dispute with Manchester, has met with Concord and is already sending some students to Londonderry.

In the past, these districts were lucky to find even one suitor, said Mark Joyce, executive director for the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. But dwindling enrollments statewide mean high schools are now looking for sources of revenue to avoid painful cuts to teachers and programs.

“When everybody was growing, they were lucky to have a place to send (their kids), and so they grabbed at it and made a contract for a long period of time,” Joyce said. “And they were happy about it because they had a place for sure that would take their kids. But under the new mindset, they now have suitors from all different angles, saying ‘We have room for you, we’ll take some of your kids.’ So now those K-8 systems are looking that it’s a buyers’ market, we now can maybe have choice.”

Wooing districts

Births are down statewide, and the number of school-aged children in New Hampshire dropped by more than 15,000 from 2002 to 2012. As enrollments drop, administrators are faced with making cuts. If districts want to keep teachers and vibrant academic programs, one of the only solutions left is finding more kids to fill the empty seats.

With more options available, sending districts now have a stronger hand when it comes to finding receiving districts who will take all of their students and when negotiating prices.

When Deerfield sought a contract in 2004, only Concord offered a spot for every one of its students. With that same requirement this time around, Deerfield’s school board found three offers. Deerfield can exit the agreement with Concord in 2014, but it will automatically continue if Deerfield chooses to stay.

In 2004, “we were being shut out of many schools completely,” said school board Chairman Don Gorman.

For these new negotiations, the principals from Concord, Pembroke Academy and Oyster River all came to a meeting in Deerfield last month to answer questions from about 100 residents, Gorman said. In addition, each school made time for an 11-member committee to visit, giving tours and discussing programs and services. That committee unanimously recommended Oyster River, but the board has the final say. It will begin discussing contracts soon.

“If you have three excellent schools that all want your students – all of your students I might add – it’s a good deal. Now we get to pick and choose and negotiate a little bit better deal,” Gorman said. “It puts us in a very nice position.”

This year Deerfield pays Concord $14,163 per student, boosting Concord’s revenue by about $2.8 million.

After entertaining the possibility of leaving Somersworth for years, Rollinsford finally asked Joyce to conduct a study for its district in 2011. Interest from four new districts – Oyster River, Dover and Marshwoood and Noble in Maine – surprised the school board, said Chairman Tom Kunz.

“A lot of these places were looking for, I guess you could say, an orphan district,” he said.

Marshwood, which the board chose, put forth an extraordinary effort to woo the community, he said. That district, in Eliot, Maine, is just over the border about 15 minutes south of Rollinsford.

“I understand there’s a real advantage of having our kids in someone’s school,” Kunz said. “It was a lot of bending over backwards and it was quite a positive experience.”

Barrington’s school board put out a request for proposals in October as it nears the end of its contract with Dover in 2014. In addition to Dover, Somersworth, Coe-Brown and Oyster River have shown interest. Some students already attend Coe-Brown and Oyster River under informal agreements because Dover put a cap on how many students it could accept under the assumption 10 years ago that the incoming number would grow.

“Things have changed a lot since we went through the process with Dover originally,” said Barrington School Board Chairwoman Deb McNally. “When we first went in, there was a cap because they were worried they were going to grow so fast that they wouldn’t be able to take all of our students, so they said ‘We can’t take more than this many.’ But then they didn’t grow.”

The more interest, the better

The Barrington board wants to continue offering its students choice. It is searching, however, for one or two districts to be districts of record, meaning they wouldn’t be able to deny any students, McNally said.

More options makes the process lengthier, but having many interested parties is a good thing.

“It’s a very challenging process, but I think in the end it will be well worth the work that we’re putting into it,” McNally said.

Oyster River already offers a lower price than Coe-Brown to Barrington’s students. Coe-Brown charges $13,500 per tuition student, so Oyster River set its price at $13,000. That’s less than the $16,000 average cost per student at its high school, said Oyster River Superintendent James Morse.

Explaining that lower price to voters can be difficult, Morse said. Oyster River had the teachers and resources to absorb those students without spending more money, he said, meaning the school essentially gains an extra $800,000.

“Those 64 (Barrington) kids, the way I look at it, are frosting on the cake,” Morse said.

Offering lower tuition to students from other towns used to be unthinkable, Joyce said.

“A decade ago no one would have dared suggest that, because everything was pushing up, the numbers were increasing, we had more kids than we could handle,” he said. “This new normal is changing that relationship.”

Lasting trend

Public school enrollments are unlikely to tick back up anytime soon.

New Hampshire’s declining birth rate reflects a national trend, said Ken Johnson, senior demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. It’s partially a result of couples delaying marriage and fewer women in their 20s having babies during the recession.

“The big question in the long run is whether those babies will be born later or whether they won’t be born at all,” he said.

But the state’s population is also aging rapidly. The number of 25- to 44-year-olds – the prime childbearing years – went down by 57,000 between 2000 and 2010, and the state’s largest age group is 45- to 54-year-olds, Johnson said.

The recession also froze people in place nationwide. In the early 2000s, migration into New Hampshire, which brought in families with young children, accounted for a larger portion of growth than natural increases. But by the end of the decade more people were moving out of the state than were moving in, Johnson said. It’s unclear whether that will change as the country climbs out of recession.

These statistics mean that districts will have to face the consequences of fewer students if they don’t find new partnerships.

Concord High School’s enrollment, for example, is projected to drop by 7.2 percent over the next decade, and that’s if Deerfield’s 200 students stay. The district has already cut positions through attrition wherever possible, said Superintendent Chris Rath. She said there’s nothing the district has had to completely eliminate because of declining enrollment. But losing Deerfield would be “significant,” and Concord would actively seek out another district, such as Hooksett, Rath said.

“We very much want Deerfield to stay, and it’s been a very positive relationship,” she said.

Dunbarton’s incoming students will be a boost to Bow’s rapidly declining high school enrollment – down about 17 percent in the past decade. Three years ago, Bow had to lay off several teachers, which caused a stir in the community. The layoffs were a product of budget cuts, but some people cited smaller enrollments as a good justification for laying off teachers. Bringing in more students could prevent a similar situation in the future.

“That was a pretty tough time,” said Superintendent Dean Cascadden. “We had students come to the annual meeting with signs saying ‘Save our teachers,’ and there was a lot of conversation about (how) you do reductions in force.”

Oyster River in Durham is 300 students shy of meeting the 915-student capacity at its high school, which was expanded within the past decade. Since 2002, the district’s population has dropped by 11 percent; it is projected to drop an additional 19 percent during the next decade.

If the high school population keeps shrinking, the high-caliber programs the school offers would be threatened, said Morse, the superintendent. Oyster River’s philosophy centers on giving students many options so they are more likely to enroll in classes where they’ll excel. Without enough students, those choices could become limited.

“It takes a certain number of students to do the kind of work that we’re doing at Oyster River High School,” he said.

Its likely that districts will continue to grapple with shrinking enrollment for the foreseeable future, meaning tuition students from small districts will remain in high demand.

“The economic mindset has entirely changed,” Joyce said. “The choice now is either we open up and find more revenue, or we end up cutting major options within our program.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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