BOE Hears 10-Yr Enrollment Projections as Budget Process Heats Up

Superintendent Kevin Smith (center) with Board of Education members Ruth DeLuca, vice chair (L) and Deborah Low, chair (R)

On Thursday evening, the Board of Education heard a presentation on 10-year enrollment projections. Kicking off the conversation, Board Chair Deborah Low framed the broader discussion to come, and noted that the Business Operations Committee had met that morning to review these findings.

“We talked about budget process,” she said. “How that unfolds and how best to anticipate some of the public’s questions, especially as they concern enrollment versus cost. With us going down in enrollment, how does that impact cost? And how can we explain that relationship?”

Superintendent Kevin Smith introduced Michael Zuba, an AICP-certified planner and director of planning for educational development projects at Milone and MacBroom. He noted that the district has worked with Zuba a number of times over the years and has always been very satisfied with the quality of his demographic studies.

Zuba opened the presentation with an overview of the main enrollment drivers that go into the projection calculations: growth measured by the United States Census; birth rate; unemployment rate; housing market; and future residential development.

Based on the 2020 Census, Wilton grew by a population of 441 people in the preceding decade, a 2.4% increase, but these numbers do not reflect the housing turnover of the last 18 months. Zuba noted that while births were historically the main statistical driver of kindergarten enrollment, today’s trends indicate that housing turnover is now equally determinate. Wilton saw a small but noticeable uptick in births in 2020 and 2021, with the smaller cohort years of 2010-2015 now a trend of the past.

The unemployment rate in Wilton and Fairfield County is recovering fairly well, with a caveat that there have been significant changes to the workplace since the pandemic, including the rise of remote work, and there is some lack of clarity about what effect those changes will have on the local unemployment rate long-term.

Finally, regarding real estate drivers, Zuba pointed to the housing market in Wilton, which has recovered to its 2004 rate, and the swath of new multi-family development projects initiated within the town. However, studying the four projects furthest along in the development process — 2 Hollyhock Rd., 141 Danbury Rd., 200 Danbury Rd., and 300 Danbury Rd. — Zuba estimated that they would result in the addition of just 64 students, spread across 6-7 years of enrollment.

Later in the evening, Chair Low asked for more information about what factors are considered when the modeling the enrollment impact of new and expected development.

“I look at bedroom splits — is it studios, or one or two bedrooms—price points, and the design intent. Is the building designed to attract young professionals and empty nesters, or families?” said Zuba. He also noted that Town Planner Michael Wrinn served as a resource throughout the analysis process.

A recap of recent and longer term enrollment averages showed a stark division in population trends between elementary and older students. Where Miller-Driscoll School and Cider Mill School have consistently experienced growth, including dramatic growth at the kindergarten level in 2021, Middlebrook Middle School and Wilton High School remained on par with historic trends. District-wide, diversity within Wilton schools is increasing: the Wilton student body is now 25% minority, a growth of 13% since 2010.

Turning to projections themselves, Zuba introduced the Cohort Survival Methodology, which relies on observed data from the recent past in order to project the near future. He reviewed three projection standards customized to Wilton’s trends and data:

  • High projections: Assume high birth projections (average 153 annually) and housing sales will continue at elevated level for next 4-5 years. Student in-migration averages 2.75%, which is well above the recent historic average of 2.0%.
  • Medium projections: Assume medium birth projections (average 145 annually) and current housing activity persists for next 3-4 years. Student in-migration averages 2.3%, which is slightly above the recent historic average
  • Low projections: Assume low birth projections (average 139 annually) and housing activity slows in the next 1-2 years to recent pre-pandemic historic levels and in-migration averages 1.5%, which is below the recent historic levels

Based on Milone and MacBroom’s analysis, Zuba pointed to the Medium Projections as the most accurate model for determining enrollment projections. Under the medium model, pre-K-12 enrollment is projected to decline slowly and “bottom out” in 2024-25 at 3,624 students, then grow by 5.5% to 3,825 students by 2031-32.

However, in a later exchange with Low, he noted that if the housing market continues its current performance, Wilton could assume that the High Projections would most likely be met.

With no further comments or questions from the Board, the board members agreed to continue discussing these findings and financial realities as the budget process moves forward.