Latest enrollment figures for Westport’s public schools show a decline in overall student numbers from the previous year. / Graphics, Westport public schools enrollment report

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — The Long Lots Elementary School district has historically had strong home sales, contributing to an enrollment surge that strained capacity of the aging, soon-to-be replaced school.

Not this year.

As of this fall, Long Lots had an enrollment of 574 — 16 fewer than the 590 students at the K-5 school last year and 29 students fewer than the 603 anticipated.

Local home sales have slowed dramatically since the pandemic peak years of 2020 and 2021, contributing to declining enrollment in Westport’s schools.

The Long Lots district had a much smaller share of townwide home sales in 2023 compared to the prior four years, officials say.

Michael Zuba, director of planning for SLAM Collaborative, a Glastonbury firm that provides the district with enrollment projections, lays the blame on what he called a one-year blip.

It bears watching, but Zuba recently told the Board of Education that, if anything, the dip may have bought the district time as it works to replace Long Lots and redraw the school district’s elementary school boundary lines to help even out enrollments. (Read the complete enrollment report here.)

Still, it gave some board members pause, what with the 2024-25 budget preparation underway and redistricting planning set to begin.

“Should we feel good about the capacity we have [across the district] or should we be nervous,” board Vice Chair Liz Heyer asked, in what was her last meeting before stepping down to become a Board of Finance member.

Zuba, whose capacity study last spring projected rising enrollment and an overall space crunch for the district, said forecasts need to be adjusted, but that he expects housing sales to bounce back and enrollment growth to continue.

A side-by-side comparison: “Hot spots” for home sales in Westport, left, vs. “new students” in town, right. Historically, Long Lots and Greens Farms school districts have the greatest share of sales, while Coleytown and Saugatuck have the lowest share. However, there was notable decrease in sales in the Long Lots area for the 2023-24 academic year.

Where schools’ enrollment is now

After two years of strong in-migration of students linked to home sales, the number of new-to-district students has decreased for a second year.

Actual enrollment districtwide sits at 5,256 students, or 122 fewer than the total enrollment reported to the state in the 2022-23 school year. Various projections models provided by Zuba had overall district enrollment dropping between 22 and 93 students.

At the elementary level, enrollment was off 58 students from what was projected, with Long Lots and Saugatuck responsible for most of the slide. The middle schools were off by about 30 students.

The birthrate in town is down this year, but still higher than pre-pandemic levels. House sales, which jumped during the pandemic are slowing. So far, 2023 townwide sales are on pace to be at the lowest level since 2009, with 306 sales.

Mike Zuba, a planning consultant from SLAM Collaborative, discuses the recent enrollment report with the Board of Education. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

Zuba blames that on low inventory and high prices. The median single-family sales price in Westport is $1.9 million this year.

Moving forward, the school board was told to expect elementary school enrollment to rebound, fueled by larger kindergarten classes — despite recent changes in the age students can start school.

Models show the Long Lots enrollment peaking at 642 students by 2027-28, Coleytown at 490, Greens Farms at 497 by 2025-26, Kings Highway remaining steady at 462 and Saugatuck declining slightly over the next five years to 390 students.

Districtwide, overall enrollment is projected to increase by 3 percent between now and 2027-28.

This year, there are 123 elementary school classes among all the schools despite the slip in enrollment because of where the numbers fell. In several cases, however, class sizes are said to be a student or two away from being forced to add sections based on district policy.

Takeaways

Despite its slip this year, Zuba said Long Lots is still expected to lead the pack in enrollment growth going forward.

“One year doesn’t weigh in so much on the model that it changes a 10-year track,” Zuba said, adding, “This year it has been a weird housing market.”

Heyer theorized that some homebuyers may have passed on the Long Lots district because the elementary school is about to become a construction zone, likely followed by redistricting.

Heyer also wondered if the  district should still be planning for a new Long Lots of five sections per grade on what she called a challenging landscape, given enrollment uncertainty.

If not, she said, the decision should be made as soon as possible, as the project is now in the hands of town funding bodies.

Long Lots still has a robust 29 classroom sections, noted Assistant Supt. John Bayers.

“It does look like we are building Long Lots too big,” offered board member Robert Harrington. “I don’t see the case for it to be honest.”

Harrington has advocated for some redistribution of students between Long Lots and Saugatuck Elementary. He noted last week that enrollment gap between the two schools is widening.

“We have capacity at Saugatuck so I think we’re going to have to address that,” Harrington said.

 Scarice called the enrollment report fairly new and different than the one presented last spring.

“I know what the marching orders are,” Scarice said. “We need to revisit this.”

Scarice added, however, that the report changes the urgency a little bit around redistricting.

Board Chair Lee Goldstein said despite the enrollment fluctuation, redistricting can help to balance out enrollments across the district.

“For one school to have 19 sections and another to have 30 — is that what we want?” Goldstein said.

Goldstein also said that if one school in the district is to have five sections per grade it ought to be the new one.

Representative Town Meeting Deputy Moderator Lauren Karpf, who chairs that body’s Education Committee, listening from the audience, called the discussion interesting, but warned the report comes as the town is embarking on a difficult budget season.

“We know what is coming,” Karpf said. Convincing the town to keep modulars when there is excess school capacity, despite a prediction of more students in the future, will be difficult, she added.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.