As Enrollments Drop, Schools Ask Why; High Cost of Housing Cited in Chilmark

By CHRIS BURRELL

Faced with steadily declining enrollments, the Vineyard's two regional school district committees have decided it's time to investigate what's causing the drain of kids from their classrooms.

They are examining birth rates and planning to conduct exit interviews with families and students who left their schools, trying to figure out whether the downward spiral is part of a national trend or more of a Vineyard anomaly.

Up in Chilmark, the reason behind an enrollment drop from 59 to 47 students could be pretty simple: the high cost of housing.

A few weeks back, Chilmark School principal Carlos Colley was expecting 54 students to walk through the doors on opening day. What he didn't know was that at least three families had left town, at least two of them forced out by the lack of affordable housing or even a place to rent come Labor Day.

"Two days before school started, one family went to Oak Bluffs because they had trouble finding an affordable place," Mr. Colley told the Gazette. "Because it's such a small school, a swing of one or two families causes a big change."

What was once a very small school now sounds downright tiny, and against the backdrop of budget troubles up-Island, the low numbers could spur some critics to argue for cutbacks in staffing at the kindergarten through fifth grade school.

"We lost 12 kids in one day in Chilmark. There's some question whether that's a school," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said last week at a meeting of the regional high school committee.

Mr. Cash explained yesterday that his comments at the meeting weren't meant to disparage the school but to describe a political climate up-Island where administrative costs are coming under fire. Just last week in Aquinnah, some selectmen questioned the central school administration's budget.

Meanwhile at Chilmark alone, administrative costs now total more than $100,000 a year, with Mr. Colley earning just over $87,000 as the principal and his part-time administrative assistant making $22,500 annually. Chilmark also employs four full-time teachers, three full-time classroom assistants and seven part-time teachers.

"I am concerned it's going to be a challenge to continue to keep a school with an enrollment of 47 kids fully staffed," said Mr. Cash. "These viewpoints will start to crescendo as we head into budget season .. but I feel the administrative team is an excellent one."

Enrollment forecasts from the New England School Development Council had said that Chilmark enrollment wouldn't drop below 57 students until 2008.

But the problem is hardly confined to the Chilmark School. Across the Island, principals have witnessed student ranks begin to thin since the late 1990s.

West Tisbury School has seen its numbers dwindle three years in a row. Enrollment there stands at 348 students this year, down from 374 last year and 392 the year before - an 11 per cent decline in that time.

The census at Edgartown and Tisbury schools has fallen consistently since 1997. Last week, high school leaders said the fluctuations and dips in school enrollment across the Island need to be examined. The Up-Island Regional School Committee has also decided to question students and families who have left their schools.

"I would suggest an exit interview with students who do leave us," Mr. Cash said last week.

But no one seems to be disputing that the high cost of housing, particularly up-Island, may be a big reason for sagging enrollment in the two up-Island schools.

"Up-Island is more severe than the rest of the Island. There's a higher percentage of houses than [in] any other town that are investment properties and second homes," said Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority. "There are vastly fewer opportunities for people to get into home ownership, and it's going to have a major impact."

Mr. Jordi said his agency's attempt to convince homeowners to convert a guest house into affordable, year-round housing has found little traction in Chilmark. "We've had a very hard time finding rentals in Chilmark," he said.

The affordable housing needs assessment released two years ago proves Mr. Jordi's point. The median price of a single family house in Chilmark was $885,000 in 2001. In West Tisbury, the figure was $564,000.

Down-Island, median sales prices were about half that. In Oak Bluffs, the median house price in 2001 was $278,250. For Tisbury, the median cost of a house was $352,500. In Edgartown, it was $450,000.

Census data also clearly depicts a graying Island, but the situation is very pronounced in West Tisbury, where overall population soared from 1,704 in 1990 to 2,467 in 2000.

In that same period, the numbers of children under five years of age dropped significantly from 162 to 127, a fact that may spell even more of a drop in enrollment down the line.

In Chilmark, those numbers in the census were nearly static, with the under-five population going from 41 to 39 between 1990 and 2000. But the numbers of young people aged 25 to 44 in that town fell from 243 to 200 in the last decade.

Diane Wall, chairman of the up-Island school committee, said she can see the difference by looking at the new neighbors: "You're not seeing young people come into town."

But the costs of education are not expected to fall, further driving up the per-pupil expenses. School costs across the Island total roughly $30 million.