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Declining enrollment in schools

Published 5:16 pm, Wednesday, January 16, 2013
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It was only a little more than a decade ago when New Milford completed an ambitious, nearly $70 million school construction and renovation project that dramatically upgraded district-wide educational facilities.

The town built a beautiful new high school on Route 7 S., changed the district's grade configuration, renovated the old high school on Sunny Valley Road into a grade 4-6 intermediate school and made other system-wide improvements.

Despite that extensive undertaking, there were many in that fast-growing town who were concerned about when another new school might be needed to accommodate increased school enrollment.

Today, however, there are so such worries.

In fact, in New Milford -- and in many towns in the area and across the state -- a steady decrease in the birth rate in recent years has led to declining elementary school enrollment and resultant underutilization of school facilities.

The city of Danbury, which continues to see increases in its student population, is fairly unique in that regard, both in the area and statewide.

In the short term, school districts must decide how to deal with excess space -- and the cost of maintaining it -- in its elementary schools.

Looking down the road a few years, many districts will be facing reduced enrollments in their middle and high schools as well.

The temptation is to take the least expensive or the logistically easiest approach to resolving space-use problems.

Yet we strongly encourage town and school officials to keep their priorities in order and to be thinking about what is best for the education of the children in their community.

We are glad several area districts are tackling the challenge head-on. Among them, New Milford has the issue on the front burner, Region 12 (Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury) has a long-range planning committee considering the options, Ridgefield has been weighing its best alternatives, and Newtown has been looking at overall municipal and educational facility-use needs.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the phenomenon of declining school population.

New Milford, which is the largest town geographically in the state, has its three elementary schools scattered throughout the community, and closing any one of them could have potentially negative ramifications.

Officials are also considering a new grade reconfiguration and/or moving the central office to one of the schools with excess space (and closing the old East Street school building, known as the Lillis Administration Building).

Region 12, which has elementary schools in each of the three small towns and has fought a local-versus-consolidated battle for most of its four decades as a district, is now considering a host of options, ranging from the status quo to moving all students onto a central campus in Washington.

Ridgefield has six elementary schools, and discussions continue about which one might be best to close.

The significant decline in Newtown's early grade school population in recent years has raised the issue of what to do with the four elementary schools in town. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy, townspeople are now discussing whether they would like to reopen, remodel or raze that facility.

Newtown will need to seriously consider that emotional issue as it proceeds, and that town and its neighbors will all need to try to find solutions that make sense financially and logistically.

In the end, their decisions should all be measured through one ultimate factor: what is best for the students in their district.