Williston school enrollment falls again after years of growth

By Michelle Edelbaum
Observer staff

Williston School District enrollment has fallen by more than three-dozen students this year, continuing a trend that could prompt the district to permanently shelve expansion plans.

District Principal Walter Nardelli said that enrollment totaled 1,165 students on the first day of school, down 39 students from 1,204 students on the last day of school in June.

September is a time of flux, as new students move into the district and administrators determine the status of students they thought would show up but didn’t, Nardelli said. The district may have gotten eight new students since the first day, he said.

The district will report final enrollment numbers to the state on Oct. 1. The figures will be used as part of a calculation for state aid.

This is the third year enrollment did not grow as expected. In 2004-05 enrollment dropped by six students over the course of the year. The previous year, enrollment fell by two students. For many years before that, the district grew at a brisk pace, adding an average of 37 students each year.

Williston’s declining enrollment mirrors a statewide trend, said School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby. Sundby said she is reserving judgment on whether Williston’s situation is a long-term trend or just a brief reprieve, and wants to study it further.

“I think it supposes the possibility that we might not have to expand down the road if the numbers hold,” said board member Jeanette DiScala.

The uncertain enrollment picture has led the School Board to delay a proposed expansion of Allen Brook School and instead develop a plan for capital improvements, including a potential renovation of the aging Williston Central School.

“There are ongoing needs at both schools, more at Williston Central School, because it was built several decades ago and is old,” said Sundby. She said Williston Central School needs general repairs and energy efficiency improvements.

The School Board is also trying to renew the permit for temporary classrooms at Allen Brook School, which expires Sept. 27. Nardelli said that structures — trailers converted for classroom use, are helping the district get though a period of uncertainty.

“We have growth pressures, obviously, because we have trailers, but we need more time to see whether it’s an aberration or a trend. There is still a lot of housing to be developed in the next five years,” said DiScala. “We need a few more years of data before we can see whether or not we have to bond.”

DiScala and Sundby said the board is holding off on a final decision on expansion plans. The board was scheduled at its meeting Wednesday to discuss options. The results of that session were not available by press time.

When the board formed a Facilities Committee some years ago, enrollment projections showed that the district’s schools would soon run out of room. But when actual enrollment began declining, it gave people pause, Nardelli said.

“This may mean that Williston may not have to build another school,” he said. “If they just modify the current structures … rather than adding a whole other building or big addition, the difference to taxpayers will be tremendous.” A previous estimate pegged the proposed Allen Brook School expansion at $6 million.

The district wants to obtain new projections that account for the recent decline in enrollment and new development in town. Nardelli said the board would receive updated projections in October and hopes that the figures show a small addition to one of the schools will suffice. An addition could allow the trailers, which hold roughly 80 students, to be removed.

Nardelli said that Allen Brook School was built to accommodate an expansion, which the district has contemplated for some time. The addition would be a wing that could accommodate 12 classrooms, about 240 students, he said.