School enrollment steady

Housing developments raise concerns

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

As the Sept. 26 public hearing for Finney Crossing approaches, some Williston taxpayers question if the large development – and others like it – will increase school enrollment, forcing construction of new school buildings.

For the moment, however, preliminary data suggest the number of students in Williston schools is leveling off after a sizeable drop last fall.

As of Aug. 31, Williston Central and Allen Brook schools together had 1,180 students enrolled. When the district reported enrollment numbers to the Vermont Department of Education on Oct. 1 last year, enrollment also stood at 1,180.

District Principal Walter Nardelli said enrollment fluctuates over the course of the year – even between now and Oct. 1. Last year during the first month of school, the district enrolled an additional 15 students. When school closed in June, the district had another nine students enrolled, or a total of 1,189, Nardelli said.

For the last five years, some Williston taxpayers have monitored enrollment numbers because they can drive classroom needs. In 2001, enrollment jumped 7 percent in one year, forcing the School Board to consider a multi-million dollar expansion project for Allen Brook School. Enrollment peaked the following year at 1,218 students and leveled off until last year when it dropped nearly 3 percent.

Though enrollment appears to be steady for now, both schools are feeling pinched for space due to increasing numbers of students requiring one-on-one services.

“We’re squeezed about as tightly as we can be right now,” Nardelli said.

There are other space considerations. Full-day kindergarten, which national data say puts students ahead of those who attend half-day, would be viable only with additional classrooms. Temporary classrooms at Allen Brook School, in the form of trailers, are permitted only through February 2010; the Development Review Board is requiring the school district to provide a long-term facility plan by 2008.

Effects of new housing

Town planning limits new housing units to about 80 a year for the next 10 years, so residents can expect to see about 800 new units over the next decade, according to the most recent town growth report.

The largest development seeking approval is Finney Crossing, a mixed residential and commercial development proposing 356 housing units. Bob Snyder, the developer of the residential portion of Finney Crossing, said the development would add only about 67 students to the schools over the 10-year building period.

Town Planner Lee Nellis said Snyder’s estimate could be high. On average, two-bedroom units – which comprise the majority of new units at Finney Crossing – have generated an average of 0.16 school-age children per unit in Williston.

“Given that the school population is falling and they projected it to rise using those numbers, I would say (0.16) is high,” Nellis said.

Single-family homes are estimated to generate on average 0.25 students each.

Volunteer school demographer Bill Smith, a retired engineer from IBM Corp., who now works for the State of Vermont Department of Taxes, said new housing is only a small piece of the total enrollment picture. When housing changes enrollment from one year to the next, he said, it is more likely to be sales of existing houses than new construction.

Still, any enrollment increases as a result of new construction may, over ten years, be offset by a declining birth rate, Smith said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002 saw the lowest U.S. birth rate since national data has been available.

“The biggest single factor involved in change in enrollment in schools is the fact that there are fewer kindergarten students coming in than there are eighth graders leaving,” Smith said.