Merrimack sees decline in enrollment

MERRIMACK – The bubble is about to burst.

When Marge Chiafery joined the Merrimack School District 16 years ago, school officials watched an enrollment “bubble” appear on the horizon and then move through the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Those large elementary school classes of yesteryear are fast approaching graduation day.

“What we’re seeing right now is an inverted slope,” said Chiafery, who has been the school superintendent for the last four years.

According to enrollment figures from October, the four high school grades range from 405 to 434 students. The six elementary grades, on the other hand, range from 324 to 386 students.

The largest class in the school district is 10th grade. The smallest is first grade.

The numbers mean that the school district is set to handle enrollment for at least the near future even with kindergarten opening next fall, school officials say. That’s because a new middle school and renovated upper elementary school opened this year.“I believe that with the opening of the Merrimack Middle School, our space needs are going to be met for 10 years, and maybe longer,” Rung said.

The question now, however, is if the individual elementary schools are poised to adequately handle their student populations without districts being redrawn.

“I think we’re in great shape,” Chiafery said of the overall enrollment numbers.

“What I really want to know is, are we making the best use of the elementary schools?” she said. “If we redistrict, could we make better use of our resources?”

School officials will be a step closer to knowing that answer on Dec. 6. That’s when the New England School Development Council returns with a demographic study of the town’s elementary school population.

The council is one of two organizations that project school enrollments for the district. The other is a consultant with the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

The numbers will tell where growth in town is likely to occur, and whether the districts should be shifted to balance out the number of students attending each school.

The three elementary schools aren’t equal in size, Rung pointed out. Reeds Ferry School in the north of town and Thornton’s Ferry School in the south have the same number of classrooms, but Mastricola Elementary School, which lies at the town’s center, is smaller.

Southern and western portions of Merrimack are fast-growing, but Reeds Ferry School has the most students this fall. The school populations break this way: Reeds Ferry – 527 students; Thornton’s Ferry – 513 students; Mastricola – 390 students.

None of the schools are bursting at the seams, Rung pointed out.

“Reeds Ferry used to be very, very crowded, and now it’s not. It’s one of our least crowded elementary schools.”

Redistricting is a long-term solution to balancing out school populations, and wouldn’t occur without months of study and debate because of how it could potentially disrupt families, Rung said.

It’s also not an appropriate response to a short-term enrollment spike, she said.

“It is important to look at trends,” she said. “You can’t just look at one year to see where elementary school’s are going.”

A better way to accommodate short-term issues is by adjusting staffing, Chiafery said.

For example, a half dozen staff positions were eliminated in the current budget. For next year, three more teaching positions will be needed for kindergarten. But Chiafery said those will be offset by eliminating one position at Mastricola Elementary and two at Mastricola Upper Elementary schools.