Amherst, Pelham schools see declining enrollment

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/26/2020 2:30:50 PM

AMHERST — A significant decline in students at the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools is prompting a warning from the superintendent about the financial challenges and educational impact it could cause.

Superintendent Michael Morris, at a recent joint School Committee meeting, said he is projecting a 4.4% drop in enrollment that will take the number of students in the six school buildings below 2,500.

“It does feel like some theoretical line is being crossed about the size of the district,” Morris said. “This is significantly smaller than we’ve been in the past.”

The projected student enrollment has gone down from 2,511 in October 2019 to 2,400 this October. 

Morris said a major concern is that Chapter 70 state educational aid is based on enrollment, meaning that the fiscal year 2022 budget year, which begins next July 1, will be the first to feel the brunt of having fewer students.

For the Amherst-Pelham region, the most acute drop is at the high school, where enrollment is dropping from 920 to 883 for the ninth through 12th grades. The decline, Morris said, has ramifications for the comprehensive level of programs available to students, with numerous electives available depending on an enrollment of at least 1,000 in the four grades.

“The consequences are very real to this,” Morris said.

There are smaller dips at the middle school, which houses the seventh and eighth grades and is going from 426 to 417 students, and for the K-6 Amherst elementary schools, with Crocker Farm declining from 347 to 321 students, Fort River going from 311 to 309 and Wildwood moving from 382 to 365.

Morris has more worries about Pelham, where the student population is dropping 16% from 125 to 105.

“As a percentage of a school, that is a huge drop in enrollment in Pelham,” Morris said. “This is something that is not fiscally sustainable.”

This has occurred even though there are 37 school choice students from families who don’t live in Pelham, or more than one in three children at the school.

Morris said other districts are also seeing declines, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and precautions taken, such as minimizing in-person instruction.

While he admits it is only a hypothesis, there are more homeschool families and children going to private schools that have classes in school buildings.

“We have a lot of students who left the district to attend private schools this year,” Morris said.

Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling said he worries that the situation could lead to a “death spiral” for public education, that being able to offer fewer programs at the high school, for instance, may make it more difficult to retain current students and draw families to Amherst. He said the consequences of not offering a good course selection is having families shift to in-person learning at private schools or by hiring in-home tutors.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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