The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 6, 2008

Enrollment declines weighed in Carlisle School plans

Declining enrollment at the Carlisle School will likely impact the focus of the proposed building project, as a recent report shows enrollment will continue to decrease in the next decade.

The number of students is expected to drop from its current 780 students to around 728 next year according to projections released this year by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), an organization that provides annual enrollment projections to school districts across the state.

Regional demographic trends for Massachusetts and Carlisle show school enrollments continuing to drop due to an aging population, according to former Selectman and economist, John Ballantine, who has tracked demographic changes in town for many years.

At a recent meeting of the Building Committee he projected between 600 and 720 students at the Carlisle School over the next 10 to 15 years, based on town birth rates and on the number of students expected to move into new or existing homes in town. His high-end projection, 720, includes students who might move into any new affordable housing projects built in Carlisle during that time.

NESDEC numbers show an even greater decline in projected enrollment in the next decade – from 728 next year down to 525 students in the 2017-2018 school year. One reason NESDEC’s numbers are lower could be because it may not include the preschool children at the school in its base calculations, says Ballantine.

The NESDEC report describes a declining birth rate in town. “In preparing these new projections, we note that Carlisle births, which had been in the 50-60 range per year, have been trending downwards, with 35 births in 2003 and 23 in 2005.” The February report says the trend is for kindergarten classes to be about 40% larger than their birth-year group. More than half the births in town last year were to women over age 40, Ballantine points out.

The report says the two large middle school classes are not likely to be replaced by large incoming classes. “The current Grade 7 class numbered 98 students when they were in Grade 1. The current Grade 8 class had 103 students when they were in Grade 1. The two most recent classes in Grade 1 have had 68 and 71 students respectively.”

The school has worked with Ballantine and NESDEC on enrollment projections. Carlisle is also waiting to see the state’s enrollment projections for the school after submitting current town data to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) at their request earlier this year. With three sources – NESDEC, the MSBA, and Ballantine’s analysis, school business manager Heidi Zimmerman says, “We are trying to get our arms around the forecast data as best we can. The challenge is, how do you determine which projections are the most accurate to use?”

The town’s population is gradually shifting from younger families to mature baby boomers, Ballantine said. His analysis shows there were 1,637 residents between 25 to 40 years old in 1990, with just 438 over age 60 at that time. In 2008, census data compiled by resident Verna Gilbert show those numbers are almost reversed, with just 477 residents between 25 to 40 years old, and 1,480 over age 60.

He said the downward school enrollment trend is likely to continue for the next 10 to 15 years and then start to move up again as baby boomers’ grandchildren enter schools.

School facilities need renovation

When the project was first proposed in 2000, the school was experiencing overcrowding due to increased enrollment. In 2001, at its high-water mark, the school had 852 students. Over the last few years, however, the school has seen a gradual decline with the trend expected to continue for the next decade.

Despite the demographics, the Carlisle building project made it onto the coveted list of potential reimbursements with the Massachusetts School Building Authority after a five-year state moratorium on new projects. The town can expect to receive about a 40% reimbursement from the MSBA if it moves forward with the project.

Selectman Tim Hult, a town representative on the Building Committee, said the focus of the project should be on replacing Spalding and maintaining programs at the school. “We need to clearly state the demographics. This building project is not based on expected enrollment increases.”

The school plans to replace the 50-year-old Spalding Building with a new elementary building. Limited renovations are also planned for the school’s other buildings as part of the project. Roofs on the Corey, Wilkins and Robbins Buildings, and five heat-exchange units on Corey all need to be replaced within the next few years, amounting to around $2 million in maintenance costs. “Some of these big ticket items can be rolled into the project for a 40 percent reimbursement,” according to Zimmerman.

Two years ago the Building Committee and HMFH architects completed a master plan for the school that outlined a new building to replace Spalding. With partial state reimbursement within reach, the school hopes the town will support the project. The school is now shifting its emphasis from alleviating overcrowding to renovating and updating its older facilities, and addressing educational program needs that have changed over the years.

Updating educational needs

A new elementary building would hold the school’s preschool classroom, and kindergarten, first, and second grades. In the past, school projects only addressed primary classrooms, says Superintendent Marie Doyle, without dedicating classroom space for other key programs. Elementary music classes, held in a small music practice room in Corey, will likely be relocated to a larger classroom in the new building, along with the elementary art classroom.

Smaller special education classrooms for elementary speech, reading, and occupational therapy programs are also planned. “Since state education reform in the early 1990s, schools are assisting more students with special education services. Special education teachers tutor students one-on-one or in small groups.” says Doyle, pointing out that state-mandated programs have created a need for dedicated tutoring spaces.

New programs also require space. This year a middle school in-house special education program, Bridge to Pathways, was added. The program, which shares space with the school store in a classroom in Wilkins, is designed to help some middle school students stay in the school who previously had to move on to an out-of-district placement. “It helps to keep students in their neighborhood school,” Doyle says, “and it helps to reduce our out-of-district costs.”

Moving the elementary grades and their support services to a new building is expected to free up space in the existing classroom buildings − Wilkins, Robbins, and Grant/Link. The free space is expected to be used by some of the school’s other programs such as the expanded World Languages program. This is the second year of elementary Spanish at the school and middle school Chinese was also added. The school would also like to set up a middle school technology and engineering classroom in one of the buildings.

Next town vote decisive

The school plans to request funds to hire architects to complete schematic, or partial designs, of the new building later this year. Based on a construction project estimated at $25-30 million, the school would request about one percent of the cost for schematic design work, or about $250-300,000. Architects will provide more detail on what the replacement building will look like and what renovations can be made to other buildings.

The town must vote on funds to hire the architects but when that will occur is unclear. A vote could come in November but it could be delayed until January, depending on when the project manager is hired and the project gets underway.

New state procedures to hire a project manager could also take longer than expected. The current timeline shows a four-month process, including completing the proposal to hire the manager, advertising the position, site visits by applicants, selecting and interviewing finalists, and signing an agreement. The group is trying to move up the hiring date so the project manager can work with the school to hire the architects.

Architect funds will be a key vote for the town, says Hult, because, if the vote passes, the town is more likely to vote for construction funds later.

“It will probably be a smaller building based on the enrollment projections,” Superintendent Marie Doyle said of the project, which could start in the next year with state funds and with town support. She said the school will work to balance its educational mission while staying mindful of the costs.

This summer, part of the committee will look at the education plan to see what classrooms the school needs most to improve program deficiencies. Another group will work to see if it can speed up hiring of the project manager.

The Building Committee will add two new members to assist with the project − architect Janne Corneil, and Robert Wiggins, an owner’s project manager. The group is now up to 17 members, including residents, school and town officials. ∆


© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito