GROTON -- Falling enrollment has prompted officials of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District to consider filling empty seats with students from other school systems in order to maintain optimum class size and keep revenue flowing in a time of difficult economic conditions.
"We have to start thinking about how to fill those seats," warned School Committee member John Giger at the group's meeting of April 10. "I think this is something we need to pay a lot of attention to."
The question came up following a presentation by Swallow Union Elementary School principal Peter Myerson, who had been delegated by interim Superintendent Anthony Bent to look into the district's school choice program and recommend increasing the number of out-of-district students if it turned out that they could be accommodated.
According to Myerson's report, Groton-Dunstable currently has 37 out-of-district students spread across all of its schools but mostly concentrated in its high school.
With $5,000 to be earned for each student, the revenue generated by school choice is not inconsiderable and the lure of earning even more of it may be too much to resist for a district that has had little increase in its spending over the last several years.
At the same time, Myerson reported that overall enrollment of in-district students continues to fall, with the school system having lost 10 percent of its student body since 2007.
"Enrollment is going down," said Myerson.
Projections cited by the New England School Development Council "suggest that this trend will continue for the next several years" with enrollment by 2018-2019 estimated at only 2,219 students, down from 2,947 this year.
In his report, Myerson concludes that "this decline in enrollment can be partially offset by increasing the number of students in the school choice program."
In its advocacy for recruiting more out-of-district students, the report argues that "additional school choice students would help ... avoid incremental costs, help preserve programs, and provide needed financial resources."
Money earned from school choice students could then be spent on more technology, teaching material and furthering teachers' education.
A survey of neighboring school districts found that all were eager to exploit school choice as a means of bolstering revenues.
Finally, Myerson recommended recruitment for next year of more school choice students to fill seats in both of the district's elementary schools (8), the middle school (10), and in the high school (4).
If all of the recommended slots were to be filled, the district would earn a total of $150,000.
"There is very little chance that we will not take as many students as we can," said Bent when asked if there was a waiting list to get into Groton-Dunstable.
But school choice is a two-way street, with Groton-Dunstable also losing an average of 18-20 students a year to the program.
Concerns raised by School Committee members included preference in acceptance of choice students be given to siblings of those already in attendance, setting tuition rates for out-of-state students who could come primarily from southern New Hampshire, and avoiding outright advertising for students in order to avoid hard feelings with other districts.
Giger, after suggesting a brochure be prepared describing the district to prospective choice families, said the program should still rely mainly on word of mouth.
Committee Chairwoman Allison Manugian said it was "worrisome" to her that too much attention might end up being paid to out-of-district students at the expense of local students.
"I'm a little bit unsettled on that," Manugian said.
But agreeing with the plan in general, committee members instructed Bent to return at a future meeting with information on concerns raised.
A decision on the issue could be made by the committee at that time.
Also at their April 10 meeting, committee members received a briefing from accountability director Kerry Clery on progress the district is making in adhering to the requirements of the federal government's Race to the Top program.
More specifically, Clery said implementation of the program's teacher evaluation system has gone smoothly, with 50 percent of the district's staff members having been covered so far.
Clery said that by next year she expected to have all staff members evaluated.
"This is a huge project," said Bent of the program, adding that Clery had "worked skillfully" with unions and others in making sure there was a smooth implementation of a program where other districts had failed. "But it will be a few years before the program is fully implemented in a deep way."
The next step, said Clery, will be to create a plan for the educator evaluation system using district determined measures that "measure student learning, growth and achievement related to the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks."
Finally, committee members were forced to revisit the district's policy regarding the acknowledgment of religious holidays after receiving a letter from a resident asking that the Greek Orthodox Easter holy day be observed or acknowledged in some way by the schools.
It was suggested that, like the Jewish holy days, students might be sent home without homework and not be tested on those days.
Only a few months back, committee members had voted to add the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover to its school calendar, a move that prompted school officials to revisit their policies and make changes if needed.
But with the request for recognition of the Greek holy days, fear of a "slippery slope" was brought up that if something was granted to one religion, all the others would demand equal treatment, causing havoc with the scheduling of tests and other classroom assignments.
With that in mind, Bent was asked to look into the ramifications and report back to the committee at its next meeting, when a decision on the issue could be made.