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Fewer students, emptier schools in Franklin County

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Extra classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School being rented by The Mary Lyon Foundation.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Extra classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School being rented by The Mary Lyon Foundation.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Extra classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School being rented by The Mary Lyon Foundation.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

There are 2,000 fewer students attending Franklin County public schools compared to 15 years ago, leaving only a handful of schools in the region operating at or near capacity.

A majority of the schools are between 75 percent and 90 percent full. It’s a different picture in districts that send students to Mohawk Trail Regional High School and Mahar Regional School, which are 30 to 50 percent full.

Officials who oversee mostly full schools are comfortable with their numbers — saying that their facilities fulfill the academic needs of their student populations while also meeting space requirements. They’d prefer having some wiggle room over having a full school with packed classrooms and no room for growth.

“I am pleased with all of our schools. They are adequate for our current student population,” said Regina Nash, superintendent of Frontier Regional School and its four feeder Union 38 elementary schools. “I have never looked at the percentages of space used in our schools nor do I necessarily consider it a valid indicator when it comes to assessing our educational program.”

“If your enrollment is below capacity or if you’re not using classrooms, the financial impact is relatively none, outside of electricity,” said Mark Prince, interim superintendent of the Gill Montague Regional School District. It would be worse to have enrollment numbers that exceed school capacities, he said, and closing a school could lead to crowded classrooms and hurt the quality of education.

But there’s a different picture to the east and west. Orange schools are half full, and districts that send students to Mohawk Trail Regional High School are between 30 and 40 percent full — prompting school committees in those regions to explore the idea of consolidating schools as a cost-saving measure.

At the four elementary schools in the Mohawk Trail district there is “too much capacity for too few students,” said Robert Aeschback, chairman of the Mohawk Trail Regional School District Committee. “We need one elementary school. ... Our number one responsibility is to provide a quality education (and) there’s only so much money that taxpayers have to spend.”

Stephanie Conrod, chairman of a school committee that oversees three Orange elementary schools, said that consolidating into one school would allow the district to reallocate its money — from paying for multiple facility repairs to spending money on new curriculum and things that could directly improve students’ academic experiences.

Higher enrollments
led to bigger schools

Student population was on the rise during the 1990s and early 2000s, when about two-thirds of the county’s schools were built or underwent renovations.

Margo Jones of Greenfield — an architect who worked on schools across western Massachusetts, including in Ashfield, Greenfield and Whately — said that, at the time, all indications pointed to those numbers continuing to increase.

“When we built (schools then), it was based on the best enrollment projections that were made at the time,” said Jones. “It didn’t take into account that the baby boomers’ babies were going to be a bulge (in population) going through. Behind them, there wasn’t going to be much.”

School-age populations leveled off when the Baby Boom echo faded. That inaccurate projection, coupled with a need to reach certain capacity sizes to receive state aid, may have caused many districts to overbuild, said Jones.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority, formed in 2004 from the former School Building Assistance Bureau, attempts to prevent this from occurring now, by working with districts to come up with the most cost-effective school construction option.

Unlike enrollment figures, there are no publicly available school capacity numbers.

But MSBA reported in 2011 that one in five Massachusetts schools are oversized for their current enrollment programs. It evaluated how schools used their space, giving 22 of 37 Franklin County schools “below average” ratings (just over 23 percent of the state’s 1,757 schools fell in this category).

Although Franklin County’s population hasn’t changed much in the last decade — hovering just over 71,000 on both the 2000 and 2010 Census reports — its under-18 population has decreased by 3,000 people in that 10-year time, to 13,800 in 2010.

State data shows that there are just short of 9,800 students currently attending public schools in Franklin County — which includes 210 at Four Rivers Charter Public School and 473 at Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy cyber school. Fifteen years ago, before Four Rivers or the virtual school opened their doors, that number was 11,900.

Increasing enrollment
in Greenfield

Greenfield’s total enrollment has increased over the past four years.

There are 2,146 students in the district, including 473 enrolled in the virtual school. Its enrollment number was nearly 2,500 in 1999, but fell as low as 1,496 in 2010, according to state data.

Superintendent Susan Hollins said that the district’s schools can house all of its students and could accommodate 150 more.

Two of the three elementary schools (each with a capacity between 200 and 220) and the middle school (500) are full, she said. There is some space at the preschool and high school.

But a swelling lower grade population is moving up. Greenfield’s upper grades have under 100 students, but elementary grades are seeing numbers closer to 180. The district re-opened the Green River School this year and moved its Math/Science Academy there — an effort to shift some middle school students away from an overcrowding Greenfield Middle School.

The new high school is being built for an estimated enrollment of about 580 students each year. About 500 attend the high school now, including students in the 8th Grade Academy.

Schools using
most of their space

Pioneer Valley, a fully regionalized K-12 district, has three schools that are mostly full: Pioneer Valley Regional School (at 86 percent), Bernardston Elementary (88 percent) and Northfield Elementary (80 percent).

The other two schools are half full: Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden (55 students out of possible 125) and Warwick Elementary (55 out of a possible 100). Superintendent Dayle Doiron said that those two schools would make sense to merge based on size, but there have never been any serious discussions to do so because of a 45-minute drive between the two buildings. The district’s enrollment has dropped slightly in the last 15 years, from 1,219 to 1,055, according to state data.

Frontier Regional, which houses grades 7 through 12, is about 77 percent full, and its four feeder elementary school districts — Conway (91 percent), Deerfield (90 percent), Sunderland (79 percent) and Whately (76 percent) — also are using most of their space.

Like Pioneer, Frontier (and its elementary schools) enrolls about 200 fewer students than in 1999: 1,580 compared to 1,790, according to state data.

Gill-Montague Regional schools are between 80 and 90 percent full, said Prince. There’s limited space at the elementary schools and more room at Turners Falls High School.

The district has seen a drop over 15 years of about 500 students, to 1,050, according to state data.

“I think the conversation may need to be reframed, from enrollment versus building capacity, to an overall discussion about the decline in the population in western Massachusetts,” he said. “Also, we need to be mindful that (school) choice and charter (schools) over time has had an impact on enrollment.”

At Franklin County Tech — where enrollment numbers have risen slightly over the past 15 years, from 488 to 518 — there is only space for about 20 more students. Superintendent James Laverty said that the school is limited by the physical space required by its 12 vocational shops.

Low capacity
at other schools

The biggest enrollment plummet has occurred in the western part of the county. Districts that send students to Mohawk have seen their total enrollment fall since 1999, from nearly 2,000 students to 1,161, according to state data. Aeschback believes that fewer families are choosing to raise their children here than in decades past.

With schools operating between 30 and 40 percent capacity, the topic has come up at recent school committee meetings. Superintendent Michael Buoniconti did not respond to a request for comment.

Mahar and Orange elementary schools are half full with 1,464 students — about 200 fewer students than they had in 1999, according to state data.

Mahar, with 700 students and space for 950, is nearly three-quarters full. But its feeder elementary schools in Orange are emptier: Fisher Hill (57 percent), Dexter Park (32 percent) and Butterfield (38 percent).

Michael Baldassarre, the outgoing superintendent of the two districts, proposed last week that a new school should replace the three existing elementary schools. Those buildings’ ages were also a factor in his proposal.

The county’s Union 28 elementary schools — representing the towns of Erving, Leverett, New Salem, Shutesbury and Wendell — are about half full, said school officials.

State data shows that over the past 15 years, those schools have seen a drop in students, from 756 to 582.

Each Union 28 school sends students to a different high school. Leverett and Shutesbury are considering leaving the union to become part of a regionalized K-12 system with Amherst and Pelham.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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