The topics of student enrollment and enrollment projections have drawn heightened attention since Sensible Wilton supporters started referring to declining enrollment projections in discussing their continued objections to the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. In an interview last weekend with Sensible Wilton’s president Alex Ruskewich about the group’s renewed petition effort calling for a Special Town Meeting to reopen debate on the issue, he told GOOD Morning Wilton:

“I didn’t realize that the education enrollment projections are as dramatic as they are. From the Prowda report, by 2018 there’s going to be 200 students less in Miller-Driscoll. Why are we going through the oldest building if we’re going to have 10 classrooms free, because of that projection?”

GMW asked Dr. Kevin Smith, superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, to explain how the district projects future enrollment, and to discuss what the school’s analysis looks like vs. what Sensible Wilton is asserting. He asked Bruce Likly, chairman of the Board of Education, to join us for an interview on the topic.

Smith also revealed that the authors of the latest report on enrollment in Wilton schools conducted by consultants Milone and MacBroom will attend the BoE meeting tonight, March 26, to discuss their findings in depth. That meeting begins at 7:00 p.m. in the WHS professional library.

We asked the superintendent to give GMW readers some insight into what that report found and how it differs from previous analyses of district enrollment, including the research conducted by Dr. Peter Prowda and others, that Sensible Wilton is referencing.

GMW:  Enrollment has suddenly become a topic that more and more people are paying attention to, can you explain the varying approaches that different experts have taken and the way the school is trying to get a handle on the numbers, and what this new report will take a look at?

Bruce Likly:  I want to preface that in how I think we got to this situation. Ellen Essman has been doing an amazing job of giving us enrollment projection numbers for years–as a professional, as a Wilton resident who is willingly giving of her time, which is unbelievable on all accounts.

What I learned a few years ago, though, is that she really focuses on trying to be accurate for the next year. Yet the charts showed progressions out for many years. People were making assumptions and jumping to conclusions on those out-year numbers. It wasn’t until we specifically spoke with Ellen to understand the accuracy of the numbers beyond the coming year that she said, ‘No, you can’t use the numbers for that.’ That’s when we realized we were in a real quandary. The entire community was assuming we could use those numbers.

From there we started some research to figure out where to go.

[Former superintendent] Dr. Gary Richards reached out to Peter Prowda, to the best of my knowledge a year ago…

GMW:  I’ve seen online references to a 2013 references to a 2008 report Prowda had done [for the district]…which Ellen had been drawing from.

Likly:  That could be.

GMW:  So it was last year that Dr. Richards was increasing the focus at realistically looking at future numbers?

Likly:  Right. And one of the things that I learned was that Peter Prowda and Ellen Essman use similar logic and were getting to similar conclusions. But I felt that we weren’t actually seeing that play out in the kids walking through our doors in September.

GMW:  Did you look at projections made way-back-when, say, five or eight years in the past and how accurate they were now?

Likly:  Honestly, we were so busy, no. But then we had conversations with Dr. Smith, who said he had another organization he wanted to work with that takes more variables into consideration. That brings us to where we are today.

Dr. Kevin Smith:  Dr. Prowda is well-known across the state, does a lot of this work for other districts, and he had done some similar work in Bethel before I was superintendent there. Again, same kind of story, the reality on the ground wasn’t jibing with his projections. So even in that community, looking at some building projects, wanted to have their feet on solid ground with what they were looking at.

This company, Milone and MacBroom, was recommended and they did the study there in Bethel. It was very, very comprehensive–much different work.

GMW:  Why is that kind of long-term accuracy important? Beyond the need for projecting how many classrooms you may need in a building renovation. 

Smith:  The vast majority of our budget expenditures are around personnel. We try to adhere to appropriate student-teacher ratios in our classrooms. We also need to do long-range planning to prep for our priorities and initiatives. We need to understand what that’s going to look like in terms of dollars–are we going to be adding staff, do we have opportunities to shift staff (as we’ve done in this upcoming budget), do we need to reduce staff? The key determinant is how many kids are in front of our teachers.

GMW:  Beyond the impact on personnel and cost, is there also a philosophical, approach-to-teaching an delivering curriculum impact? For instance, does it make you consider a classroom model more widely used in Asian countries of more children in a classroom?

Smith:  There are so many other determinants, and I don’t think you can compare our system of education against Singapore, China–they’re just different. When you look at those countries that top out on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Exam, there’s no correlation with class size. You have Finland with smaller class sizes and fewer kids in a class with less instructional time, and then you have China which runs very large classes. So it’s hard to compare. That wouldn’t be…it’s more localized. What are our values? What are our priorities? What information do we need to have to make solid plans and really be as prepared as possible looking over the horizon.

GMW:  To address things that people have said in meetings or in the press, what is the difference between looking 5 years out vs. the 10-20 years out? Does that impact only the question of how we renovated or is there more?

Smith:  No but that’s a big consideration. One of the criticism the building committee is facing right now is that they’re overbuilding. I think they need to have solid numbers. Part of this is to have solid numbers–as solid as we can. Bruce made a really good point the other night [at the March 23 public hearing on the BoE budget] when he addressed that question, in saying, ‘Looking out 15 years is virtually impossible; none of these folks would say we have reliable projections that far out. But we have to anticipate.’

The Milone numbers suggest that, like everybody else, there is going to be a decline, and we’re facing it statewide–it’s more dramatic in some communities, less dramatic in others–but that curve starts to bend back up again. Their model is truly comprehensive. Beyond just looking at demography and the number of women of childbearing age, it goes much deeper than that. They’re looking at the economy, they’re looking at unemployment. Through this model they’ve run several analyses–one is a regression analysis, where they factor in housing and economics, and it’s a strong correlation to student enrollment. So they really try to get their arms around the in-migration.

That’s one of the key differences of this study vs. Dr. Prowda’s work. My sense is he tends to rely on demographics and not so much the economics. All of the economic indicators are good and getting better, and that bodes well for actually an increase in student enrollment in the future.

Likly:  What I wrestle with–using an ocean analogy–are we arguing over waves or the tide? The U.S. population is pretty steady. I come back to, yes we’re looking at numbers for a short period of time, but a building project that’s going to last multi-decades. We need to be mindful stewards of our town. It’s not a short-term decision. Will history prove us right or wrong? Absolutely. Do I know for certain whether we’ll be proven correct or wrong? I don’t know for certain. But I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be proven correct.

GMW:  Can you walk us through key points of the report?

Smith:  Sure.

  • Milone looked at two projections prior to doing their own. One was done by the CT State Data Center and the second was done by the Department of Transportation. In doing the analysis, the DOT–which is actually predicting an increase in population here in Wilton–is more consistent with the current economic conditions.
  • They do an analysis based on the economics of the town and of the region, and correlate enrollment with low unemployment and an improving economy. In terms of the trend analysis, that was another indicator to suggest that while we’re going to see a decline in the short term, we’re going to start to see those numbers tick up in the long term.

Likly:  It’s amazing because you’re counting kids who haven’t even been born yet.

Smith:  They highlight that here in Wilton and across the state, birthrates have gone down. But they’re suggesting, based on that economic data, that the birthrate will actually experience a rebound beginning in 2015, over a 5-year period to 2020.

  • The other key factor is the in-migration of families into Wilton who already have children of school age. That was a key piece that was either not reported or underreported in Dr. Prowda’s report. Those families make up a significant population of our school aged children. In their analysis, for every new house that’s purchased, you can count, like, half a school-aged child. There is a significant relationship between the people moving here to Wilton and reporting steady increases.
  • One of the perceptions is that here in Wilton, families tend to be larger. The data in this report bears that out. Families are significantly larger, statistically, than they are in surrounding towns and across the state. Not only do we have new people moving in, but they’re bringing more kids with them.
  • The other important economic factors here:  trends in housing sales are moving in the right direction. They highlight the number of permits for new houses, they reference the opening of the Avalon apartment complex.

Likly:  Did you know before the new Avalon apartment complex was built, the town talked about it as it was going to be a retirement community. But in reality, you should see how many school buses we have going in and out every day. We now have a new apartment complex coming in. I believe there’s a very good chance that complex will be filled with kids. And there are factors we can’t predict how they’ll impact what happens. If another condo association goes in, that would have an impact. If Super 7 goes in, that would have an impact.

We don’t know but we are trying to use the best information we have. And we’re trying to make educated decisions.

Smith:  They take that and mash it all together and come up with an understanding that all these things are pointing to the potential increase over an 8-year horizon.

What I also took comfort in, is they ran three different sets of analyses, based on their data, what it would look like on the low, middle and high ends. Their recommendation is that the middle trend is probably the most reliable of the three. But if the economy performs above expectations, then we could very well see the higher numbers. If things were to remain completely unchanged, then we may see the lower numbers.

GMW:  Given their projections, in addition to the implications for the M-D project, how as a district are we going to be able to handle what they’re saying?

Smith:  We’re not expecting the numbers to approach or exceed the peak enrollment that we saw in the last few years. We’re seeing some of those classes come through the middle school and high school now. I don’t think in this 8-year horizon that we’re expecting those kinds of numbers.

So we will be, in the short term, a smaller school district than we’ve been in the immediate past. We have the capacity, we have the space. There are opportunities, in terms of long-term planning, to balance out the priorities while also tending to the bottom line of our budget.

It’s all good news in my eyes.

GMW:  Forecasting beyond that, capacity-wise do we have the ability to handle what they say we might hit at the high end?

Smith:  Yes, the facilities will meet the expectations laid out in this 8-year scenario.

GMW:  How should Wilton residents process the news from this report?

Smith:  It’s an important data point. As I’ve said before, when we start the budget process, we begin with enrollment.  Most importantly, it’s important for your readers to understand that we have a process that’s got integrity to guide our planning. We’re not sitting around a table making up numbers. That there really is science behind the work. A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about the numbers:  what they mean, what the opportunities are, as we move forward as a system with our improvement agenda.

Secondly, to echo what Bruce said the other night, we want families to move to Wilton. Having families is strong sign of a vibrant community. We have a great school system that’s going to continue to get better.  I wouldn’t mind busting at the seams, personally, because it’s just an opportunity to serve more kids and provide a great education to more families.

Likly:  The analogy is, you look at the vibrancy of a church based on how busy the youth program is, how busy the Sunday School program is; the same goes for a community.

As folks have questioned what the BoE is trying to do and what the M-D building committee is trying to do, it fascinates me. Every one of those individuals are Wilton taxpayers. None of us wants to spend a nickel more than we have to. At the same time, none of us wants to shortchange what’s best for the community. The maintenance issues we’ve run into are examples of what happens when we’re forced to shortchange.

We’re at an opportunity right now to do it right. Not do it overly so, but to do what is appropriate.

It’s interesting that people still question whether or not we should have built a new school. It fascinates me because it tells me that there are folks who haven’t been involved in the process and don’t realize the land doesn’t exist. There is no way to do that.

Smith:  This group [Milone and MacBroom] will be presenting to the BoE on Thursday [tonight] and we certainly welcome all interested parties to attend and hear the presentation first-hand.

2 replies on “SPECIAL REPORT: School Enrollment Projections—-What it Means for M-D and Beyond”

  1. Great in-depth article – thank you.

    If the national population grows over time but Wilton’s school enrollment shrinks, isn’t that a bad thing? Wilton encourages families with children. Wouldn’t we expect Wilton to continue that encouragement in the future to ensure we have a healthy, vibrant town? Isn’t the long term trend in school enrollment in some significant part determined by Wilton’s choices – creating family-friendly facilities and business, zoning decisions, etc.? Wilton is not a passive actor in town demographics. How are Wilton’s desires and future policies factored into the projections?

  2. Those are great questions and ones I hope to get town leaders–and residents–to chime in on. There’s a perception that some groups on one side prefer the storied “charming, semi-rural village” that Wilton once called itself and would prefer to keep things on a smaller scale, while others prefer to open things up a bit more…whether to more school-age families, more commercial development and the like. Stereotypical description? perhaps. But those are some of the elements at play in the dynamics in much of what happens here.

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