Class sizes in Southborough shrank this year

Class size in Southborough schools was a hot topic last budget season (slog your way through this comment thread if you want proof). School committee members warned that several grades – particularly at Neary – had classes that were well beyond policy guidelines. Parents feared proposed cuts to the school budget would drive class sizes even higher.

As it turns out, just the opposite has happened. Town Meeting approved the requested school budget without additional reductions, no teaching positions were eliminated, and thanks to some reshuffling, class sizes actually went down this year.

According to enrollment data released last week, average class sizes across the four Southborough schools range from 18 to 22 students. The most noticeable decrease in class size was seen at Neary where some classes last year had as many as 24 students. This year classes at Neary are down to an average of 19-20 students.

K-8 School Committee Chairwoman Marybeth Strickland said at a committee meeting last week that while the district didn’t add any new teachers, they were able to shift personnel around to even out class sizes.

“We’re fortunate that Town Meeting approved our budget,” Superintendent Charles Gobron said. “I am really happy with our class sizes.”

Neary Principal Linda Murdock said even a small change in class size makes a big difference. “Teachers are very happy,” she told the school committee. “I hear every day how amazing the difference is.”

Pat Lally, president of the teachers association, echoed the sentiment. ” It has made a huge difference in our ability to get to each student,” she said at last week’s meeting. “We thank you because we know it was a lot of work.”

Early in the budget process last year, the school committee voted to add $50K to the school budget to restore a teaching position that was lost the previous year. They eventually backed off that plan after pressure from other town boards.

You can take a look at this year’s school enrollment data here.

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Trixie
11 years ago

I am surprised at the enrollment numbers in the lower grades. There is really quite a drop off.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

It looks like this year we will be down another 56 students from last years K-8 enrollment of 1500. This is part of a trend that started in 2005 when our peak enrollment was 1631. This year it will be 1444. Over the next few years we will be graduating classes of 160-185 and replacing them with K-1 classes closer to 100- 110. This suggests that we will continue to lose enrollment on the order of 50 students per year for the foreseeable future.

The US census Data from 2010, the most accruate data available, http://www.southboroughtown.com/administration/2010%20CENSUS%20DEMOGRAPHIC%20PROFILE%20FOR%20SOUTHBOROUGH.pdf shows that the population of children in town 0 to 4 years old (515) is half the size of the population 10-14 years old (1029) and 2/3 of the population that is 5-9 (854)

There is every reason to believe that we should be planning on a K-8 system that in the near future will be serving closer to 1000-1100 students.

Frank Crowell
11 years ago

I wonder if the BOE will take a hard look at closing a school or punt the question to the principles of our four schools for an analysis.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell

Frank

This trend has been before the School Committees for years. So far the appetite for hard decisions has been lacking. Better to plan for higher than necessary costs than deal with a hard decision.

Mark
11 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell

Frank-

The decision to close a school is solely up to the School Committee. The Selectmen have absolutely no say in it. However, it will be interesting to see how Mr. Kolenda addresses this issue, since he is a member of both the school committee and the selectmen. Not sure which school committee., Southborough or the Regional one.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Mark

The problem is that the opportunity for savings (which I estimate as millions) and more effective actions crosses multiple silos. There is no executive body that is responsible for overall performance of Town Government. The BOS is responsible for about 25%, k-8 about 45%, Regional schools about 25% and other independent boards 5%. In my experience there is very little cooperation between the BOS and the K-8 School Committee indeed there is, in my opinion, a degree of hostility.

The only body that has overall responsibility is Town Meeting, and its associated sub committees, which has legislative oversight but only has budgetary authority.

So, here is my proposal: Since this issue crosses lines of authority and has the potential to have significant impact on the town I suggest that either the Moderator, or the Advisory Committee appoint a committee to investigate and report to town meeting the following:

1. At what student population could we operate a quality K-8 system in a 3 school format? Is there a realistic chance that we will hit that population?

2. What would it cost to move to a 3 school format? What would the savings be?

3. If a school building were available to the Municipal Govt for 5 and/or 10 years how would that effect the use and disposition of other Municipal Buildings? What are the benefits and costs?

4. Should we plan on keeping the option of returning the surplus school building to school use if enrollments increase or should we plan on building a new school?

Town planning is often a very short term affair focused on the next annual budget/ATM cycle. We need to look at these longer term issues that cut across lines of authority and an independent analysis and development of facts and options is the first step.

Frank Crowell
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, This is reasonable approach to the problem. Of course moving forward would mean some of our elected officials agree it is a problem. Leaving this in the hands of the BOE means nothing will be done. I hope that you hear more then crickets on this post. This deserves as much applause as passing the school budget on TM.

Mark Ford
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Couldn’t this proposed committee be brought forth via a Warrant Article at Town Meeting?

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Mark Ford

It certainly could. It would only have the authority to advise ATM but that in turn could inform budget decisions.

Mark
11 years ago

The size of classes is a function of existing/new home sales as young families move into the suburbs. Its no coincidence that homes sales peaked in 2005 too. It would be difficult for the committee to assume this trend is going to continue indefinately and downsize the facilities at this point in the cycle. If home sales picked up, Southborough would likely see a disproportionate influx of young families as a direct result of this stellar enrollment data and Boston Mag’s recent rankings. The committee should be commended for their difficult (sometimes thankless) work. Thank you Southborough Schools. Thank you.

Trixie
11 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Until that happens, should we consider school choice and the tuition it brings to fill up some of our schools?

Frank Crowell
11 years ago
Reply to  Trixie

Or maybe we can start a Pre-Pre K program to fill up some class space.

Kate
11 years ago
Reply to  Trixie

Trixie: as far as I’m aware, once a student is admitted through School Choice, the district is responsible for him/her for the balance of the K-12 years. School Choice tuition is $5,000, so the schools would have to be willing to accept that amount of money for a student each year. A student with disabilities would likely cost a lot more to educate.

Curious
11 years ago
Reply to  Kate

It costs a lot more than $5000 to educate a child in the K-12 schools in Northboro and Southboro so I am not sure it is worth school choice.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Mark
If I thought that this was just the knock on effect of a depressed real estate market I would not continue to harp on it. It is not. For better and worse Mass is one of the slowest growing states in the country as evidenced by our loss of a congressional seat. School populations peaked in the State in 2003 at 983,000 and last year stood at 955,000. The grade profile for the state looks similar with the peak in grades 8-10. http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/enrollmentbygrade.aspx.

If you look at the Mass Census Age Cohorts http://www.massbenchmarks.org/statedata/news.htm you see a similar pattern with the Under 5 cohort smaller than the 5-9 cohort smaller than the 10-14 cohort. What we are seeing is the tail end of the echo of the baby boom passing through the system (eg a child born in 2000 to a then 40 year old mother).

So even if the housing market were to miraculously turn around this year it appears to me that the weight of demographics would continue to drive our school enrollment down as it will in the rest of the Commonwealth. The die is cast for our school enrollment for the next 4 – 6 years and probably beyond.

Why do I continue to whine about this? Making a well informed decision about whether we can operate a quality school system in a 3 school format is the sine non qua of our municipal infrastructure plan. If we can develop a viable plan that permits us to use one of our current school buildings for municipal use even if it is only for 5-10 years it would permit us to rationally dispose of or otherwise deal with 4 or 5 other municipal buildings that collectively have millions of dollars of deferred maintenance required to bring them into good condition.

I can live with the answer that this does not make any sense do this if it is the result of detailed and through analysis but to date the response has been a desire to pretend the issue does not exist and we are all the poorer for it.

Helen
11 years ago

I realize the economy is driving the student population as well, but remember back to the 80’s when the enrollment dropped from the 70’s numbers – as I recall it averaged 1200 students at Algonquin in the 70’s which dropped to an average of 800 students in the 80’s). During that time period many towns sold their schools off, only to have to build/rebuy them later on (thinking of the Zeh School in Northborough for example).

paul butka
11 years ago

I seem to recall the K – 8 School Committee saying that they had researched the 3 school option. Didn’t they conclude that the numbers hadn’t quite dropped to the level necessary to move in that direction? I, for one, don’t think this opportunity is being ignored.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

Paul

About 2 years ago the K-8 school committee appointed a “committee” to study the issue. Shortly thereafter I make repeated requests in writing to the Superintendent to find out when this committee was meeting so I could discuss the issue and present the data I had previously developed. No response was ever provided. A few months later a presentation was made to the effect that there was no reason to change.

I subsequently made a freedom of information request for all the data and analysis related to this issue since I wanted to see the basis for the analysis. I made a request of the Superintendent and the Chair of the committee. The Chair never replied. I got a stack of paper from the Superintendent. The most frequent entry was my repeated emails to the Superintendent asking to meet with the committee. There was 1/2 a page of indecipherable spreadsheet and the presentation. That was all.

The end result is that the school committee formed a committee that met in secret and developed a result that was pre ordained. This is the only time in my time as a public official that I seriously considered filing an open meeting and freedom of information complaint to the State. After that I lost all respect for the k-8 school committee and my opinion of the Superintendent declined considerably.

No, I do not think the K-8 School Committee ever seriously considered the question, just swept it under the rug. The lack of transparency was appalling and the citizens of this community deserve far better.

As I have said in many forums, I can live with an answer that this is not feasible provided it is the result of serious study and analysis. So far the K-8 Schools deserve a grade of F- on this score.

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