School enrollments: Remote vs Hybrid; Town to revisit projections vs building capacity

Above: The majority of NSBORO families opted for the learning model that targets getting kids into classrooms this fall. (graphs based on data from district)

The Board of Selectmen is authorizing an official look at whether the Town should consider closing a Southborough K-8 school in coming years. (More on that below.)

That look will feature a long term view of enrollment vs capacity. Of course these days, excess building capacity is a boon as school districts try to maximize safe distances between students. So the topic prompted me to wonder how enrollment shook out this year as parents grappled with hard choices.

I reached out to Superintendent Gregory Martineau for a breakdown of remote vs hybrid students, plus figures for drop-off over the summer.

Remote vs Hybrid

Across the board, the large majority of families signed kids up for the Hybrid Model with the planned, phased, in-person attendance. According to Martineau only 18% of Southborough families selected the Stand Alone Remote Program for the launch of the school year.

It appears that the percentage of families who opted for SARP varied by school level.  The percent enrolled in SARP (vs Hybrid) are:

  • 20% of Southborough Elementary (K-5)
  • 11% of Trottier Middle School (6-8)
  • 5.9% of Algonquin Regional High School (that’s Northborough and Southborough combined)

So, how many made a third choice – leaving the district? 

In June, the K-8 schools were predicting 1,163 students to be enrolled in Southborough K-8 this September. The actual current figure is 1,179. ARHS student enrollments dropped by 10 over the summer, from the projected 1,407 to 1,397. 

The differences don’t seem too large and I can’t tell you how many moved vs. went to a private school or other institution or chose to pursue home schooling. But Martineau acknowledged it was higher than last year’s summer drop off.*

But what about overall trends?

Enrollment vs Capacity

Back in 2012, resident Al Hamilton publicly called for closing Woodward School. He cited enrollment projections that indicated a large drop in student enrollments by 2020. Based on the trends, he pitched converting Woodward for other municipal purposes and selling three other Town owned buildings. One of those three has been sold off – Fayville Hall. But the Town is still using the other two the South Union School (which he called a “money pit”) and Cordaville Hall (home of the Senior Center).

The idea didn’t pass muster with the School Committee back then. Now, eight years later, the Town is revisiting the concept of reducing the number of school buildings. This time, Town officials will partner with the school committee in the assessment.**

It turns out, the 2012 enrollment projections were significantly off. Hamilton had shared that the student population was expected to drop by 35-40%. Enrollment did drop significantly, but only by 17% from figures shown for the 2011-12 school year.

Still, according to Hamilton’s assessment, we were already overdue for downsizing years ago. In his presentation, when enrollment was higher than it is now, he wrote:

  • We should already be in a 3 school system
    • We operated quality school system in a 3 school footprint with more students than we have now in the early 2000’s
    • Our 3 school (excluding Woodard) classroom capacity is greater than it was in early 2000’s due to the Trottier addition
  • The big question is not 3 vs 4 but 2 vs 3 schools.

In meetings this year, the Advisory Committee and Capital Planning Committee have discussed assessing the possibility as an important step in long term fiscal planning.

Recently, the Capital Planning Committee urged the Board of Selectmen to looking into the possibility of disposing of the South Union Building. Not coincidentally, Selectmen are scheduled to approve a charge for a new ad-hoc subcommittee to research school capacity vs student projections. 

The committee will be comprised of three members, one a representative of the Southborough School Committee, the other two from the Capital Planning Committee. The draft charge specifies:

School and Town administration members may participate in the meetings in an advisory manner, but do not count towards a quorum, nor will they have a vote.

CHARGE

  • The primary charge of the School Research Sub-Committee is as follows:
  • Review Southborough Schools K-8 Housing Study Group Summary Report, dated February 13, 2013;
  • Undertake any actions to update the previously completed summary report;
  • Undertake any additional steps needed to provide a comprehensive view of current and future school enrollment/space in order to provide a recommendation on whether any schools can be consolidated;
  • Provide formal read-out and recommendation to Southborough School Committee and Capital Planning Committee; and
  • Upon votes from Southborough School Committee and Capital Planning Committee, make presentation to joint meeting of Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee.

If approved as drafted, the committee will be expected to complete their work by the end of this year. On Tuesday night, the Board is also scheduled to vote in the 2 Capital members: Jason Malinowski (Capital Chair) and Kathy Cook (Chair of the Advisory Committee).

*The difference in K-8 students was a 1.4% drop off vs. 0.4% in 2019. And for ARHS this year the difference is 10 or 0.7% vs 1 or 0.007%. Still, given the status of Remote Schooling in the Spring, some of that could also reflect less communication between students/families and teachers/guidance about kids’ plans for the next year.

Updated (1/22/21 8:17 am): A typo referred to K-12 enrollment figures at one point when it should have been 9-12.

**Updated (1/28/21 9:12 am): To clarify, the difference between the approach now and in 2012.  . . Back then, pushed by Advisory Committee to consider closing a school, the school administration formed its own committee to look at the concept. This time it’s a joint effort. In 2020, a special subcommittee was formed comprised of two members of the Town’s Capital Planning Committee and a member of the Southborough School Committee. Martineau and Director of Operations Keith Lavoie are also actively involved as non-voting members.

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southsider
2 years ago

one important sub set of their charge in looking at future school enrollment will be the ultimate fate of the Park Central project. That project’s impact on school enrollments would , I assume, be material if it goes thru as planned.
In a related matter, I’ve always heard that Neary would require significant money to upgrade because it is no longer ‘up to code’. It would be a shame to convert Woodward and then find out that we need to spend huge sums to deal with more kids now attending Neary. maybe Neary is the one to be re-purposed?

Finn-again
2 years ago
Reply to  southsider

One entire wing of Finn School has remained unoccupied and dormant for at least a decade!

Volunteer
2 years ago
Reply to  Finn-again

I volunteered at Finn for last two years and that is not true. I’m not sure where you heard that but the entire building is occupied.

northsider
2 years ago
Reply to  Volunteer

My son’s class was in the ‘new’ wing, so it is definitely occupied and used.

Al Hamilton
2 years ago

One interesting note:

After I did my assessment, I found out that the Superintendent, and presumably the School Committee, had a professionally done enrollment projection. It turns out they used a methodology very similar to mine and had results very similar to mine.

Frank Crowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

So they have known for a long time that Southborough has more school space then is needed.

n
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

And both you and the professionals were wildly off the mark if I understand this correctly.

-Hamilton expected the student population to drop by 35-40%
-Enrollment actually dropped 17%


Support the effort and objective, and let’s appreciate that the decrease was less than 1/2 what our best minds predicted over a relatively short period of time.

==

It turns out, the 2012 enrollment projections were significantly off. Hamilton had shared that the student population was expected to drop by 35-40%. Enrollment did drop significantly, but only by 17% from figures shown for the 2011-12 school year.

Al Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  n

n

Wildly off the mark seems like a stretch. I made the projection 8 years ago which in forecasting is ages ago. I got the trend substantially right.

Our K-8 population peaked in 2005 at 1641 Students, in 2011 when I did the projection it had fallen to 1500, in 2020 the number is 1280. That is a decline of 361 students which is about the population of Finn or Woodward.

The sad thing is that this overcapacity comes at a substantial cost which in money that comes right out of direct services to students. Further, it forces us to keep inefficient municipal buildings which comes at additional cost. I am under no allusion that this inefficient spending will some day make it back into the taxpayers pockets but it is in effect taking services away from our seniors, students and citizens.

Enrollment data can be found here:
https://mysouthborough.com/2020/09/18/school-enrollments-remote-vs-hybrid-town-to-revisit-projections-vs-building-capacity/#comment-395043

Jack
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

I agree that 8 years is ages ago for forecasting, but a huge decision like closing a school will have a lasting impact well beyond 8 years from now.

I’m curious, Al, if one of the schools was closed down, but then enrollment increased again for whatever reason to 1500 or more (Park Central, family turnover, etc), is there a reasonable way that you may be able to think of to scale capacity back up other than just mobile classrooms?

I’m also wondering if this pandemic may have a lasting impact on learning – meaning perhaps for some families, perhaps an increase in home schooling or a fully-remote k-8 alternative experience that does not require any of the town’s physical capacity.

Spending on education is important, but I want my dollars to be spent in a differentiated fashion that adds value to the students – if we can consolidate schools and give them effectively the same experience without compromising too much flexibility regarding future enrollment, then I think it’s a worthwhile conversation.

Al Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Jack

Jack

Good questions.

1. In general in the US birth rates have been declining with record lows in 2018 and then another record low in 2019. Some suggest that half a million fewer children will be born as a result of Covid as couples decide to delay childbearing during the pandemic. This is important because these children will be entering our education system in 2023 through 2026. This suggests that our enrollment, all other things being equal will continue to decline.

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr-8-508.pdf
https://www.brookings.edu/research/half-a-million-fewer-children-the-coming-covid-baby-bust/

2. If we were to convert a school to municipal use, I would recommend that we not make any significant physical changes that would prevent conversion back to a school in the future if the need arises.

3. The question of what would happen if someday our enrollment goes back to 1500. It should be noted that we operated in a 3 school format,with I believe 4 portable classrooms, with enrollments in the 1600’s for several years as Woodward was demolished and then rebuilt. Assuming that there are 20 students per classroom it would appear to be practical to still operate in a 3 school format.

4. What about Park Central. The last time I looked into it, apartments and condo’s contributed far fewer children per adult or unit than single family homes. There would be a modest uptick but I do not believe it would come close to bringing our population back to the 1500 level. More research is required to confirm this conjecture.

The big win the 3 school scenario is that our Municipal government could consolidate into the “spare” school. This would free up significant amounts of money now spent on maintaining Cordaville Hall and the South Union School. Those funds could be used to educated our children and provide services for our growing Senior population as well as other productive uses. We could also sell off Cordaville and South Union and use those funds to invest in any number of more worthy causes.

VerySadResident
2 years ago

If Southborough is continuing building just over 55+ communities, then Southborough will not need any schools soon and all buildings would be converted to senior centers.
Good job reducing southborough property’s values down more and more. No children – no town future. Sad.

Al Hamilton
2 years ago

Sad

Even if we were to build a several hundred 55+ units the vast majority of Southborough’s housing stock would remain traditional stand alone single family residents. of the 3,488 homes and apartments in town, 84% of our housing stock is single family residences. About 77% of the residential units in town have 3+ bedrooms.

The mix and type of housing stock is not going to dictate our school populations. Declining birth rates, which is a trend across the industrialized world, and aging populations that are living longer are the driving trends. 55+ units are a symptom of an aging population, not the cause.

https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ma/southborough/real-estate

VerySadResident
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

The type of housing market is dictating the school population. Taking 55+ restrictions will bring families and children back in Southborough. Our neighboring Westborough community is building new developments for families and the children population is growing and they had to build an addition to their school last year.
But Southborough is shrinking and closing schools. Good vision.

northsider
2 years ago

I guess I’m confused as to why a shrinking Southborough is bad? We live in a quaint little town, not sure why we need it to expand past what drew folks here in the first place.

Frank Crowell
2 years ago

More than likely shutting down a school will never happen. We should turn the discussion around; take our over abundance of classroom space, the town’s majority’s need to be virtuous and create a real positive program that benefits our community.



How about a program that brings in underprivileged minority kids to our K-8 schools? Kids who want to learn but cannot in their current situation. Kids who have supportive parents. I am sure our educational elite can figure out the right screening process and I am also sure our state reps can find the money – something like $25K per student per year should do.



We voted down additional charter schools. The failed school districts haven’t changed. We have been accused of “systematic racism.” Just a thought on how to address all three with a little help from the State.

northsider
2 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell

Love that idea, Frank.

Eileen
2 years ago
Reply to  northsider

So do I.

Kate Noke
2 years ago
Reply to  northsider

Frank – sounds like what you’re proposing is the School Choice program. http://www.doe.mass.edu/finance/schoolchoice/ This is a topic that has been discussed at School Committee meetings over the years, but I am not aware that it has ever been adopted in our districts. I should note that two of my three children attended charters in Marlborough and Framingham for middle school quite a few years back

Al Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell

Actually, such a program does exist. It is call the “Inter District School Choice” program

A school system can decide to take in students from other districts. However, the maximum it can receive is $5000 per student. At the margin this might be enough money but it is far from the average cost of educating a student.

http://www.doe.mass.edu/finance/schoolchoice/choice-guide.html

Frank Crowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Well let’s see what we have here:

– $5000 per student doesn’t cut it. How about $5K from the state and $5K from the city/town of the student and we pitch in $5K. Gives our state reps something to work on. I think we are about $15K per student now.

– Get the school committee to find some savings. The goal being to match neighboring towns per student costs. This has been a long term ask but now it really means something – more savings, more out of district students, more “systematic racism” done away with.

– Certainly negotiations are going well with Fay and St Mark’s that overall cost to Southborough taxpayer for their students in our school system and the addition of outside the district students will be a wash (Ok – I know – wishful thinking).

Why who knows, our state reps might even get us some low income housing credits for this program.

VerySad
2 years ago

Yea right, so more houses will go on a market soon.

VerySadResident
2 years ago

How about start building new housing developments, collect more taxes, bring new families and therefore fill up all classrooms!

Tim Martel
2 years ago

Do you have any idea the negative tax impact that new housing developments bring? Even a large single family home with just 2 kids nets the town a loss from a tax perspective.

n
2 years ago

Are you confusing the concept of marginal cost with average cost per student?

Hmmm
2 years ago

What are we trying to address here? Bringing non-southborough kids to Southborough school district? Instead of building a Southborough community? Will southborough families be able to use southborough’s money and send their children to Westborough schools (as an example)?

Al Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Hmmm

The answer to your question is yes, provided that Westborough is accepting out of district students.

northsider
2 years ago
Reply to  Hmmm

No, why would a Southborough kid need to go to Westborough for school? We’re talking about giving kids with less, more. Kids from underfunded schools the ability to attend our wonderful schools.

Southsider
2 years ago
Reply to  northsider

Why not? Everyone should have a choice. If someone thinks Westborough school is better, the choice should be there coming from Southborough too. Great idea for choice school regardless of your background. School vouchers to use for private schools too.

Lucy
2 years ago

The entry level price to get into Southboro (600-700k) makes it unaffordable for most young families. The state put together 40B as a way to provide affordable housing but it fails to do so. There are far too few people that benefit from 40B and the developers make a mint while slamming dense unwanted apartment housing into small areas. It’s quite simply a loop hole disguised as a solution to affordable housing. What we should look at are single family developments that have 1/4 acre zoning and are in the 400k range. This will bring young families and kids to town that are now buying in surrounding communities. All new construction is either mansions or apartments. Our housing stock should change as boomers move on. We shouldn’t close schools it’s really the only service that attracts people to Southboro. If they do close one it should be Neary I think we can all agree that it’s the least desirable school in the system. As Tim brings up tax problems we need to look at the root of that problem and our spending.

northsider
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy

Agree Lucy. More single family homes that aren’t so far out of the average person’s price range.

southsider
2 years ago
Reply to  northsider

Agree, to start building more affordable houses, bringing young families and closing schools ideas will finally be the legacy.
Southborough did not want to build new houses before due to overloading schools. But now we are talking about shrinking kids population and closing schools.
Makes no sense.

Eileen
2 years ago
Reply to  southsider

Agree as well. It should not be prohibitive to live here.

Al Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy

Lucy

There are homes that come in the market for well under $500,000 in Southborough. The Median value of homes is about $663,000 so half the housing stock must be below that value, some well below. https://www.zillow.com/southborough-ma/home-values/

Housing stocks change very slowly. A building boom in Southborough might change the stock by 1% in a year. The stock we have is the stock we are going to have for the foreseeable future.

Yes, Neary is one of the candidates but it is also the largest of the pre middle school buildings so offers the most flexibility. I believe Woodward is the smallest.

I am continually baffled by people conflating schools with buildings. School is what happens between the walls. A building does nothing to educate our children it is merely a place where education happens. School is teachers, curriculum, and students. If we were able to repurpose one of these buildings there is no reason to believe that the quality of the education available to our children would suffer. Indeed, repurposing a building would leave more resources, not less, for instruction.

Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

There are not too many below the median that are in neighborhoods or that do not need serious repair. This is what families are looking for and are finding is surrounding areas. They aren’t looking for money pits on busy roads. Education does happen within the walls but if we were to eliminate a school why would we keep Neary which is in disrepair? Have you been in the gym lately? Facilities do mean a lot when it comes to education, learning, physical activity and overall well being. If one goes it should be Neary and I think many will agree. I don’t think this will happen nor would I support it. The schools are the life line of this community and the reason the families that are here stay.

Kelly Roney
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy

The older neighborhoods of Southborough, such as East Main and the Highland area, would be illegal to duplicate under current zoning code, which mandates a minimum of 0.57 acres for a Residence B single family home.

A good long time before I lived here (and I’ve been in Southborough for 35 years), there was a Residence C zoning code. I don’t know why it was repealed, but homes (and lots) that satisfied it are grandfathered. Septic systems on small lots can be a problem, since new cesspools are illegal to install under state law (possibly Title V but possibly earlier law).

It’s definitely worth asking whether we should correct past mistakes and make traditional small town centers legal again. (Don’t worry, no one’s coming for your acre-zoned 3000+ square foot home. Those will definitely predominate in Southborough for decades to come.)

VerySadResident
2 years ago

Townhouse’s developments (not 55+) 3+ bedrooms is a good option. More kids – no need to even thinking about school closing.

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