Nauset Begins Parsing Enrollment Dip And Budget Impact

By: Ed Maroney

Nauset High School began in-person classes last week. FILE PHOTO 

ORLEANS Only one of the Nauset Regional School District’s seven schools increased its enrollment over last year’s, according to an Oct. 1 enrollment report reviewed by the Nauset Regional School Committee Oct. 8.

Eastham Elementary’s gain of two students came as the other four elementary schools showed drops of 35 (Brewster’s Eddy), 24 (Orleans), 11 (Brewster’s Stony Brook), and three (Wellfleet). The middle school for sixth through eighth graders had six fewer students while the high school had 44 fewer.

The Nauset system is educating 901 elementary students (175 in Orleans), 583 middle schoolers (91 from Orleans, down 11 from last year) and 877 high schoolers (113 from Orleans, down two from last year) for a total of 2,361 students. A separate study of enrollment trends over the last 10 or so years notes peak enrollment for the middle school at 590 in 2012 and 1,041 for the high school back in 2007.

“Quite honestly, I wasn’t surprised by hardly anything on here,” Superintendent Tom Conrad said of the report. “I was slightly surprised at Sturgis (Charter Public School). We’re only sending 10 kids. I think that’s the lowest number we’ve sent in a long time.” The report on longer-term enrollment trends bears him out; the last time only 10 Nauset district students chose to go to the charter high school in Hyannis was 2011.

But decisions by parents to keep their children closer to home during a pandemic have consequences in the other direction as well. “From Day One, I was concerned about our (school) choice numbers,” Conrad said, “particularly the students coming from the farthest distances. We draw from Bourne all the way out to Provincetown… I think that’s a financial discussion we’ll have down the road.”

Four fewer school choice students are attending the middle school this year (60) as compared to 2019, and 21 fewer (198) at the high school. Over the last 10 years, the middle school peaked at 90 choice students in 2018 and the high school at 236 in 2017. Harwich (63), Yarmouth (48), Barnstable (24), and Chatham (20) send the majority of Nauset’s 258 school choice students.

The number of tuitioned-in students from Provincetown and Truro is off by 13 this year, and it appears pandemic-related decisions to homeschool children or send them to private schools has had an impact, especially in the five elementary schools. Sixty-three elementary students are being homeschooled, 12 from Orleans.

Another non-surprise, Conrad said, was the number of students choosing to attend Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in its brand-new building in Harwich. The 92 Nauset district residents going there far outpace last year’s 76 and represent the largest cohort to do so in the last nine years.

“They’re going into a state-of-the-art facility,” said Conrad. “We anticipated that would be attractive for more kids. We’re the only high school on the Lower Cape or even into mid-Cape areas that allows the Tech school to talk to our kids. They’re locked out of all the other districts. We think it’s important for the right student.” Noting Nauset’s work with Tech’s autonomous automotive program, he said, “We’re continuing to look at that partnership to see what we can do to come even closer together with the technical school.”

“I think these numbers are interesting,” said Judith Schumacher, vice chair of the regional committee. “I think we should be cautious what they inform us about. This is anything but a normal year. Covid turned everything upside down. I think this year is an outlier. I don’t think you can say this is the beginning of a trend. We need to use these numbers for budget purposes.”

Conrad said earlier that the towns have been eager to see enrollment numbers. Communities are asking the four elementary committees and the regional board to do whatever they can to reduce expenses in this fiscal year and the next one beginning July 1. Last night (Oct. 21), the Orleans Select Board planned to adopt a budget policy for FY 22 that asks the schools, including Cape Tech, to limit increases to 3.5 percent versus last year’s 4 percent, the same target for the town’s non-school expenditures. The policy calls for identification of “potential cost reductions, including a review of school choice funding inequities and net school spending requirements for FY22, as opposed to a sole focus on meeting the 3.5 percent increase target.”

“This may be a grenade,” select board member Andrea Reed said during a review of the Orleans budget policy at her board’s Oct. 14 meeting before expressing concern about the schools section. “Few of us understand how expensive it is and what services schools provide,” she said. “The costs are phenomenal. I wonder if we could soften the language in the policy about really becoming partners with the schools and understanding their costs as opposed to expecting them... Their costs, like ours, have increased due to COVID. I’m concerned that asking them to reduce their spending at a time like this seems completely unrealistic for the reality they’re facing.”

“We’ve always been able to work with the schools,” Town Administrator John Kelly said. “We’re asking them to take a look at their side of the equation, given that the town is looking at an override with the same type of constraints the schools are dealing with… We’re not asking them to do less. We’re asking them to come back and tell us why things can’t be different.”

“We really need to be partners with them, which we haven’t been in the past,” Finance Director Cathy Doane said. “We’ve just given them a number. We’re expecting them to delve a little more deeply… perhaps they can do a little bit more.”

Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan said he’d watched the last two meetings of the district’s budget, finance, and capital asset subcommittee and thinks Schumacher, its chair, is “excellent and asks the right questions… We do have an excellent school system and we do want to maintain it.”

Nauset High students returned to the Eastham campus last Thursday following completion of work on the buildings’ air exchange systems. Alternating cohorts will receive in-school instruction two days a week, with all students learning remotely on Wednesdays.