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March 03. 2012 11:18PM

NH student enrollments down yearly since '02

Student enrollment in public and private schools in New Hampshire has fallen every year for nearly a decade — and a sluggish economy is making the trend more difficult to reverse, experts say.

The enrollment slowdown has allowed districts to reduce staff and in some cases, to forgo constructing more space to relieve overcrowding.

But other items, including health care for employees and heating oil for buildings, have risen sharply from a decade ago and hiked school budgets, according to superintendents.

“Fewer people are coming to New Hampshire and more are leaving,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

Over the last five years, the number of people coming to the state dropped by 26 percent while the number of people leaving dropped by 17 percent, Johnson said. Births in 2010 were down nearly 11 percent compared with 2005, a trend Johnson blames partly on the recession.

Counting public, private, charter and home-schooled students, the total student enrollment in New Hampshire for the 2011-12 school year totaled 214,778 — a drop of 8.9 percent from levels seen during the 2002-03 school year, the highest enrollment in state history, according to a Sunday News review of enrollment figures.

That drop of 21,053 students equals the current enrollment of Manchester, Concord and Auburn — with a couple classrooms to spare.

And the drop would have been more severe, state officials said, had kindergarten figures been excluded from the total, since the state only required districts to offer kindergarten — but not mandate attendance — starting in the 2008-09 school year.

Having fewer students doesn't always translate into saving taxpayers money, however.

It's a myth, said Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, “that education is a unit-cost business.” School administrators can't simply multiply the number of fewer students by the average cost to educate a kid and say this is how much will be saved.

If a district loses a handful of kids over each grade of an elementary school, that typically wouldn't be enough to cut a class or teacher, he said. A larger concentration in a single grade would be needed to cut staff, he said.

Right now, districts that are losing the most students are not losing any state aid.

The formula for calculating the state adequate education aid has been frozen since July 2009 and is expected to continue at least through June 2013, according to Ed Murdough, administrator of the Bureau of School Approval and Facility Management with the state Department of Education.

At stake is about $578.2 million in state aid this fiscal year, he said.

Much of the student decline is blamed on migration patterns.

Home prices in New Hampshire peaked in June 2005. That year, 16,300 Massachusetts residents moved to New Hampshire. In 2010, that number was 10,100, according to Johnson's research.

Londonderry school Superintendent Nate Greenberg said people who typically would have sold their homes after their children graduated are staying there longer because they can't move. A turnover in real estate normally brings new people with children entering middle or high school, he said.

“Right now, a lot depends on the economy and commercial development in our area,” with hundreds of acres of vacant land near the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Greenberg said.

Joyce cited an aging population beyond child-bearing years.

“The second variable is we have an increasing number of younger people not married and not yet in the child-rearing stage of their life,” Joyce said.

In a decade span — from October 2001 to October 2011 — four out of five districts saw student enrollments decline, while the remaining 20 percent — 37 districts — recorded gains. One, Kensington, remained the same.

During that time, Manchester lost the greatest number of students, 1,902, or 10.9 percent. Nashua was second, with 1,525 students, or 11.4 percent. They also represent the state's two largest school districts, respectively. Manchester lost hundreds of students when Bedford opened its own high school in stages starting in 2007.

The Derry Cooperative School District recorded the third-largest decline, 1,038 students, or 22.3 percent. Londonderry ranked fourth, with a loss of 870 students, or 15.2 percent. Salem was fifth, with 784 students, or 15.4 percent. Windham students who once would have attended Salem High School now go to a high school in their hometown.

On the flip side, Bedford gained 1,680 students over that decade span, and Windham increased by 1,085. Both added new high schools. The third slot belonged to Prospect Mountain School District, which wasn't in existence in 2001 and now has its own high school in Alton. It gained 526 students.

Wilton-Lyndeborough climbed by 298 students because the two towns merged into one district. Rounding out the top five was Dover, with a gain of 247.

The statewide count showed enrollment in public schools, including public academies and public charter schools, dropped by 16,879, or 8.1 percent, between the 2002-03 and the 2011-12 school years; private schools decreased by 5,138, or 21.6 percent, and home-schoolers increased by 964, or 22.3 percent.

The Department of Education's Judith Fillion said the rise in the home-schooling ranks could be one reason the public education figures are decreasing.

But for the first time in at least a decade, the number of home-schoolers dropped this school year. Preliminary figures this year showed the enrollment count at 5,283, 112 fewer than last year's figure.

Murdough said “private schools have taken a hit through the economy,” with fewer people being able to afford tuition.

“Some of those kids end up back in public schools and others end up in other private schools,” Murdough said.

But school construction hasn't come to a complete halt.

Five school districts began receiving their first state building aid this fiscal year for seven new schools, totaling nearly $150 million. Those projects were approved in 2009 and 2010, according to Murdough.

“In some districts, enrollment is still increasing,” he said. For others, “even though enrollment is down, they're less crowded than they were but still overcrowded.''

“There are about 400 portable classrooms around the state, which indicates not enough space in permanent buildings,” Murdough said.

Concord is building three elementary schools. District officials, however, couldn't be reached Friday during school vacation week.

Joyce said the state has put a moratorium on school building aid.

“There's no funding from the state, so virtually every school district is on hold until the state Legislature reopens that program,” Joyce said.

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