It was just over a decade ago that New Milford completed a nearly $70 million school building project that had been undertaken in large part to resolve system-wide overcrowding issues.

Even after construction of a large, new high school and renovation of the old high school into a sizeable intermediate school, the question was when the schools would need to expand again.

But times have changed, and that concern has thus far turned out to be unfounded.

Today, instead of dealing with overcrowded schools, New Milford officials are trying to determine the best use of underutilized buildings in an era of declining student enrollment.

They are not alone in that quest, as several area school districts are seeking space-use solutions in the wake of shrinking populations.

We commend school officials in New Milford and other towns for focusing on this issue, hiring consultants and aggressively pursuing solutions.

And we urge residents to take an active interest in the planning for future space use in their schools, especially as some of that planning heads into the homestretch in the near future.

Each district has unique circumstances, but most share common challenges.

We believe officials and townspeople need to place the greatest emphasis on the welfare of students and the quality of their education, while giving due weight to financial and transportation realities and the possibility that the school population will grow again sometime in the future.

In some districts, like New Milford and Ridgefield, proposals have been floated to close an elementary school and consolidate the smaller school population in the remaining buildings, although New Milford is now looking at other alternatives more closely.

Newtown was also considering consolidation of its four elementary schools prior to the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But that tragedy changed priorities, and officials have been placing their focus on the future of the Sandy Hook school building, with a decision due soon.

Region 12 -- Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury -- faces a different set of challenges, as there are local elementary schools with shrinking student enrollments in each town.

The city of Danbury stands alone as the one area community that continues to see growth in its school population.

The issue of school facilities use will be moving to the front burner in the coming days for both the New Milford and Region 12 districts.

New Milford, which has seen a drop of about 400 students from a total school population of about 5,000 in October 2007, expects its consultant to deliver draft recommendations by May 22 dealing with possible reconfiguration of the grade levels at the town's six schools.

That plan would place pre-K to grade 2 students in the district's three elementary schools, grades 3-5 at Sarah Noble, 6-8 at Schaghticoke, and the existing grades 9-12 at New Milford High.

We believe that approach is favorable to earlier consideration of closing John Pettibone School, an elementary school, in a town -- geographically the largest in Connecticut -- that is likely to see population growth in its future.

There are several options on the table in Region 12, which has battled for decades over the issue of local vs. consolidated elementary schools and is experiencing a dramatic decrease in student enrollment.

Important meetings are planned for next Wednesday and Thursday to weigh those options, including some that would consolidate the entire school district at the site of the current Shepaug Middle High School in Washington. The Board of Education is hoping to make a final recommendation by the end of the month to put before the voters at a referendum later this year.

We believe it is important for residents of New Milford and Region 12, as well as other school districts involved in similar efforts, to stay on top of the issue and play an active role in the crucial decision-making process.