Drop in K-12 students signals decline in school construction
By Jason Millman
June 30, 2008
Student enrollment in Connecticut public schools will drop by 17 percent over the next 12 years, signaling a likely decline in new school construction and a lower demand for teachers, a new state report concludes.
Low birth rates and a continuing trend of people moving out of the state are responsible for a projected reduction of nearly 91,000 public school students through 2020, according to a report by the Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut.
The data center’s report was released last week on the heels of a state audit of the state Department of Education that found some municipalities grossly overstated enrollment projections for construction projects, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in excessive grants awarded to the districts.
Orlando Rodriguez, a demographer who compiled the data center’s report, said he is unsure how many school districts overestimated enrollments. But he has concluded that school districts have generally been using the wrong methodology.
Instead of using a long-term analysis, most districts looked at a three-to-five year snapshot of recent enrollment trends, Rodriguez said. That methodology fails to account for future declining populations, he explained.
“There are potentially millions of dollars at stake with a good demographic analysis,” said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis and author of the report. Until 2006, when the state census office was created, many municipalities used their own methods for tracking demographics, he said.
Carstensen said the report’s findings strengthen the case for the state Department of Education to conduct stricter reviews of enrollment projections for construction projects, considering only a few school districts are expected to experience growth over the next dozen years.
State auditors recently discovered that school districts requesting construction grants were not required to prove how enrollment projections were conducted, and the Department of Education’s most rigorous audits of the enrollment projections did not occur until years later — after projects had already been completed.
“We’ve been trying to educate the Department of Education and school districts, saying, ‘This is how you want to have this kind of work done,’” Carstensen said.
According to the report, the leading edge of Baby Boomers are entering retirement and their children are aging beyond grammar school. Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said the state has been aware of the expected drop off in enrollment, which tends to be cyclical.
Connecticut had its largest graduating class this year, so it makes sense the state will experience a decline, he said.
“It will decline again, then increase,” Murphy said. “We will see a reverse of births because the generation now graduating will begin to have children in about 10 years. Then we will have another baby boom.”
Because the state plans for these enrollment cycles, many teachers who were hired years ago when enrollments were starting to grow will now be retiring, Murphy said.
Few Layoffs Expected
Layoffs aren’t expected to be necessary for most municipalities as enrollments decline.
“Usually attrition and retirement takes care of the necessary reductions in [the work] force,” he said.
Mary Loftus-Levine, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Education Association, expressed hope that the state can attract more people and jobs.
“The great unknown is, as in any projection, what would happen if the state leaders were more robust in attracting jobs in our state over the next few years and keeping young people in Connecticut,” she said. “We’re hoping we can count on the government and legislators,” Loftus-Levine added.