If projected numbers come to fruition, Washington Township’s kindergarten through eighth grade enrollment could be more than 1,000 students less over the course of a decade.
A demographer from Whitehall & Associates, Inc. recently presented a five-year projection of student enrollment trends across the five towns that send students to the West Morris Regional High School District, as commissioned by that board of education.
While the findings showed an enrollment drop of at least 20-percent in each of the districts analyzed, Washington Township’s K-8 system showed the largest body count decrease of them all through the 2017-18 school year.
This comes less than two years after a demographer – commissioned in the fall of 2011 by the local school board – projected a steep decline in students through the 2015-16 school year.
“[The report] certainly did us a favor and gave us an extra two years of numbers to work with,” Washington Township Schools Superintendent Jeff Mohre said. “After our demographer’s report, we took immediate action with the Community Advisory Committee. Now that we have more information, we’ll continue to evaluate the situation each year.”
The Community Advisory Committee, made up of faculty, residents, and students alike, held a series of more than a half dozen meetings between the spring and summer of 2012, came up with six courses of action to recommend to the board of education that could make the most of the impending open classroom space in the district.
Those recommendations included options like redistricting students between Old Farmers Road School, Flocktown-Kossmann School, and Cucinella School. Another option was to implement programming that would help fill the space now that it was projected to be available. With that option came full-day kindergarten, which was implemented for the first time in district history for the 2013-14 school year.
“When we look at the current state [of enrollment], finally, all our professionals have the space they need to instruct the way they hoped to,” Mohre said.
Board member Michelle Munley, who chaired the Community Advisory Committee, said she believes the enrollment figures will actually play out, as the downward trend in the first two years has already been shown.
“If the trend continues,” Munley said, “Closing a school is a very real possibility and needs to be taken into serious consideration.”
Munley said the topic of closing a school during the Community Advisory Committee meetings was brought up and considered, but two immediate concerns stuck out to the group.
“The concerns were two-fold for closing a school,” she said. “What does the building become once there are no classes being taught in it? And what happens if a change in enrollment comes about, and we start trending upward? We don’t want to put ourselves in the position where we can’t get a building back.”
While Munley believes a new demographic study is worth obtaining in about three years (five years removed from the initial report) because of the situation Washington Township is currently in, if the district were to take steps in closing a school down the road, the process would have to be done in smaller pieces.
“We can’t just wait until our enrollment numbers are at their lowest to take action,” Munley said. “We would need to implement redistricting of neighborhood schooling to begin the shifting if this became a viable option.”
Mohre, whose new contract keeps him in the district until the latest enrollment figures play out, said all of the options recommended by the committee remain viable.
“[Closing a school] would be a major undertaking,” Mohre said. “But it’s one we’re willing to take if necessary.”
Behind the Numbers
The drop in enrollment between the district’s highest year of headcount and what is projected in 2017-18 is staggering, making up for more than a third of student body decrease.
Washington Township’s highest enrollment year was 2007, according to Business Administrator Liz George. In that year, enrollment peaked at 2,948 students across five school buildings.
The projected enrollment number for 2017-18 stands at 1,910, a decrease of 1,038 students across the same amount of school buildings.
Full time faculty in the district in 2007 was 373 employees, George said, and six years later it stands at 362. The enrollment for 2013-14 is projected to be 2,367 (official numbers aren’t recorded until Oct. 15). Faculty has decreased by 11 employees during the same time enrollment has declined by 581 students.
The cost per pupil, or how much it costs to educate a child for a full school year, was $13,869 in 2007. In 2013-14, it is $14,751. While there is an increase in the cost per pupil (an $882 per child increase) despite a dropping enrollment, the overall budget figure between 2007 and the current school year has dropped $1.1 million, from $40.5 million to $39.4 million.
George said the district now has more self-contained special education programs that service students who may have previously been out of district. She also said budget comparisons may also be skewed by initiatives that could have been one-time items, like a capital improvement project or curriculum initiative that wouldn’t necessarily have been repeated each year.
If projections are true, the district will decrease another 457 students over the next five years.
Editor's note: This article has been amended from its original version.