By Doug Ireland
---- — A new study released by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority confirmed what many Granite State school officials already knew.
The state is seeing a significant drop in student enrollment, affecting educational and housing needs of communities.
The study shows New Hampshire school enrollment dropped by 21,600 students between 2000 and 2010 — a decrease of 4.6 percent, even though the state’s total population increased 6.5 percent during that same time period.
The enrollment drop comes at a time when the number of housing units in the state increased by 44,300.
While it’s no surprise the enrollment decrease is linked to a drop in the national birth rate, it’s prompting communities to take another look at their school facility needs.
Salem learned last week that continuing declines in its student enrollment could have an impact on plans to renovate three aging elementary schools.
Last year, some residents criticized a proposal by School Board member Bernard Campbell to close Haigh School, saying it would have a detrimental impact on the community and education. Campbell remains convinced that shuttering the school is the right move in wake of the drop in enrollment.
School Superintendent Michael Delahanty said the School Board will have to decide whether renovating the three schools is still the best option. A new report by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association shows the district will lose more than 200 students over the next several years, he said.
The projected enrollment drop follows a steady decline over the last three years, according to district statistics. While there were 4,828 students in the district in 2009-2010, that number dropped to 4,612 students in 2010-2011 and then to 4,320.
The majority of school districts are seeing the same trend, according to Jane Law, spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.
All but 31 of New Hampshire’s 161 school districts saw a drop in enrollment, the study said. Only eight districts added 100 or more students.
In other states, declining enrollment has prompted some communities to consider combining school districts, Law said.
The Housing Finance Authority study, conducted by Applied Economic Research of Laconia, concludes that demographic factors had a larger impact on school enrollment than housing construction.
The study also took a look at four New Hampshire communities, including Windham.
The Southern New Hampshire town was profiled because it is rapidly growing and located along the heavily traveled Interstate 93 corridor, Law said.
The other communities are Belmont, Milford and Rochester. All four towns are seeing significant growth and are good case studies for an analysis of new construction, she said.
Of the Granite State communities seeing a drop in student enrollment, Windham is an exception, according to Adam Steel, business administrator for Windham and Pelham schools.
Steel said Windham has 152 more students this year than in 2011-2012 — 2,696 compared to 2,544. The district projects enrollment will increase by 100 students by 2013-2014, he said.
The new school and the district’s reputation have attracted more families to Windham, he said.
“Windham is a school system that is very well respected,” he said.
Then, there’s Pelham.
Overcrowding at the town’s schools and the need to upgrade facilities are two reasons why enrollment is decreasing there, Steel said.
Pelham has 12 fewer students than last year — 2,057 compared to 2,069 — and is projected to lose 44 more by 2013-2014, he said.
“It’s a very well-known issue that Pelham is still trying to mitigate its space needs issues,” Steel said.
Londonderry school Superintendent Nathan Greenberg said his district is also seeing declining enrollment.
“Our enrollment is dropping and has been dropping the last few years,” he said.
The district has 4,635 students compared to 5,165 two years ago, Greenberg said. That figure is projected to drop to 4,456 by next year, he said.
Unlike Salem, there is no need to reconsider any renovation plans, he said. The drop in enrollment has benefited Londonderry, where overcrowding was a problem, he said.
The decrease has meant the district is able to educate special needs students at its own schools instead of transporting them to other districts at an added cost.
It means they are receiving a better education in their community with children they know, Greenberg said. It’s allowed the district to save $7 million a year, he said.
“We didn’t have the space to even offer the program,” Greenberg said. “In essence, it’s been a godsend for the kids and the parents, and it’s obviously had a positive impact on the taxpayers. It’s a win-win situation.”