DRACUT -- A significant dip in public-school enrollment, most notably in this year's Dracut High freshman class, may be a leading topic of discussion when the School Committee sits with the selectmen and Finance Committee for a tri-board brainstorming session next month, the school panel's Chairman Michael McNamara said.
Meeting for the first time since voters in the Sept. 9 special election overwhelmingly rejected a proposed $2.9 million override of Proposition 2 1/2 to boost school funding, the School Committee received enrollment figures from Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone that several members found troubling.
Stone said as of Monday, the district's total enrollment was 3,841, 42 fewer students than last year's total enrollment of 3,883. Stone cautioned, however, that last year's figure was tabulated on Oct. 1, a date by which many students often return to the Dracut public schools after finding placement at charter or private schools not to their liking.
Most alarming to the board was the enrollment figure Stone revealed for the Dracut High Class of 2017, with only 223 students enrolling in the ninth grade so far this year, about 45 fewer than normal. Enrollment this year for 10th grade is 274, while 263 students were in grade 11, and 264 members of this year's senior class.
"The freshman class (enrollment) number is disturbing," said School Committee member Dan O'Connell, who co-authored the $2.9 million override ballot article along with fellow board member Joe Wilkie.
In response to questions from School Committee members about why enrollment may be down, Stone said he may have answers in a matter of weeks, as for the first time in its history the district is doing "exit interviews" with families of students who leave the public schools to enroll elsewhere.
"If they move out of town because their family just happened to be in transition, that's one thing, but if it's because they want a better public school for their children that's a key thing for our committee and the other boards in town to consider going forward," said McNamara. "We pay a lot of tax dollars to support our public schools, so it's important information for everyone in the community to know why families are spending thousands of dollars to send their children to private or parochial schools, instead of staying here to be educated."
Following up on post-election comments made by several selectmen, the "NO Override" campaign, and school board members, the School Committee took action to offer the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee four possible dates in October to hold a tri-board brainstorming session to seek alternate ways of coming up with necessary additional public school funding. The four suggested dates, representing off Monday or Tuesday meeting nights for both the selectmen and School Committee, are Oct. 7, 15, 21, and 29.
In other action, the School Committee's legal counsel, attorney Kevin Murphy, reported progress is being made by the Board of Selectmen's Attorney Jim Hall on renegotiating the town's proposed 5-year lease agreement with the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative to use the Parker Avenue School, per the selectmen's request at their Sept. 10 meeting.
School Committee member Matt Sheehan said he took issue with televised comments made by Selectman John Zimini, who said the town "should not be getting into the landlord business" in leasing the first and second floors of the Parker Avenue School to the collaborative.
"From my perspective, the town is already a landlord, with the Dracut Housing Authority, if you want to get technical about it," said Sheehan. "This to me is a win-win for everybody involved."
Also at Monday night's meeting, School District Business Manager Bill Frangiamore gave School Committee members a slide-show tutorial on the state's minimum requirement Foundation Budget showing that taxpayers in the average Massachusetts municipality provides their public school district with town funding that is 22.7 percent above the state's basic requirement. Dracut taxpayers provide funding that is seven-tenths of 1 percent above the state formula's minimum, Frangiamore reported.
"So we haven't quite hit rock bottom yet?" McNamara said. "Great."