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CT’s K-12 enrollment is declining. Is it time for school districts to consolidate?

Leo Simmons peers over a wall at Lyman Elementary. Simmons, a student there, would be impacted by the plans for school closure.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
Leo Simmons peers over a wall at Lyman Elementary. Simmons, a student there, would be impacted by the plans for school closure. 

As enrollment declines, Connecticut schools are having to get creative with how best to format their districts. What has that looked like in some areas of the state?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jessika Harkay to discuss her article, “CT districts weigh school consolidation as K-12 enrollment declines,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Jessika. You say school consolidation, which results in the closing of some schools, is not unusual across the country. But how's it playing out in Connecticut, considering that we have declining enrollment?

JH: Yeah, I mean, over the last 10 years, we've seen a little over 75 schools close down in Connecticut, and most of those were K-5 schools, those students usually make up the majority of enrollments. And so I looked into that data to see where most of these declines and enrollments are happening and what districts are being affected by this. And so one of the districts that stood out to me was Mansfield, which went under a recent consolidation effort last year, and I started to look into what's happening this year, which is with Regional School District 13, which saw I think about a 300 student decline in its K-5 enrollment levels. And so I was just curious to what happens when we start to see less students in the classroom. And that usually means that schools have to close down or consolidate into smaller buildings.

WSHU: So what exactly is happening in Regional School District 13?

JH: Yeah, so since we're seeing, at least within the last few years, a 30,000 student decline in the state. We're starting to see that, now, these districts are in a position where you have these big buildings, but small enrollment levels, and they're having to get smart about how to use these finances. Do we use thousands of dollars to upkeep these buildings, but it's not paying off with the students? Do we start to make these efforts to consolidate schools?

WSHU: Consolidating schools sometimes means building new schools?

JH: Yeah, I mean, some districts across the state are seeing those bigger enrollment levels. But at the same time, when you do have these declining enrollment levels, and the buildings are a little older, they have to build a new school.

WSHU: Okay. What are the parents saying?

JH: Most parents are pretty resistant to these efforts. Just because we get attached to our neighborhood schools. Let's say you have older students who went through the school that you had a good experience with, you don't want anything to change. So most parents across the country and across Connecticut are pretty resistant to these changes. Just because you know, change isn't always easy, especially when it does come to your children.

WSHU: There is a high cost to operate older schools. And also, we have a situation with the indoor air quality in a lot of these schools as well as heating and ventilation issues, which the state is spending a lot of money on. Constructing a brand new building might be better to deal with situations like that. You also say that we lost about 36,000 students in Connecticut, how come?

JH: Moving out of the pandemic was a big part of that, to where we've seen shifts towards homeschooling, some students moved out of the state. People also aren't having kids the way they used to back in the olden days, right. So it's kind of a mix of different factors, whether it's just that the student population isn't reproducing the same way as it used to, or people moving out of state, that kind of thing?

WSHU: In 2023, you say you found out that there were five schools that were shut down. What happened in those situations?

JH: So I'm mostly focused on Mansfield, which had two of those schools that shut down. And in Mansfield, they've also been seeing that declining enrollment, and some of their buildings are getting older. So they decided to consolidate all three schools into one. So that was two of those school closures out of those five.

WSHU: So basically, even though there was pushback from parents, do you think that school consolidation is something we will have to deal with going forward, sooner or later?

JH: It's a conversation that's kind of being had among a lot of districts in the state. Some districts are seeing the opposite effect where they're getting an influx of students. In Danbury, for example, the population has been steadily growing. So it's the opposite conversation. But in some of those smaller districts or more suburban districts, that is kind of the trend that we're seeing. And usually those districts have a few elementary schools, but only one middle school, one high school kind of thing. So yeah, I mean, it's a conversation that I think is going to continue to be had, especially if it still trends that we're going to be losing more of these K-5 students.

WSHU: And one issue that the parents seem to be very concerned about is that the transition into a new school might impact students negatively. What has been the research there?

JH: The research is kind of split because obviously kids are resilient, the more that they can transition and find ease in those transitions, that kind of leads to adult life, because life is always changing. There's always new things that are happening, new changes. And so research kind of shows that if these transitions can be done with the right support, these are great, because that kind of prepares you better for life. When things are always changing, you can move around, switch jobs, that kind of thing.

But the key element in that is that support. If there isn't emotional support, or guidance or showing students like, 'hey, look, it's okay.' Like, this is how you can ease into these types of changes. That's where it can become detrimental to students, and that they can struggle emotionally, they can struggle academically. And I feel like there's a lot of research also looking at military children who kind of have those transitions more frequently, or immigrant children, things like that.

WSHU: You know, the education system is facing a fiscal cliff this year, because a lot of the pandemic funding has ended. By September, there'll likely be a fiscal cliff. How do you think that will affect the way educators think that will affect this whole issue of consolidation of schools?

JH: Yeah, I mean, a big conversation the last year or so has been layoffs, right? How has that money gone into these permanent positions, but the money is temporary. So that can kind of play out in class sizes. Again, you have parents who want smaller class sizes, and if they have the fiscal means to move their students out of the district into a private school out of the state. That's also an option where you might be seeing some of those continuing declining enrollments.

And another part of that conversation, obviously, is in the last legislative session, was that the education committee passed a huge bill that's pouring I think $150 million back into the school systems this year. So it's just a matter of what districts are getting what and how are they going to use those funds this next year.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.