Richard Grip, Ed.D., the demographer hired by Hopewell Valley Regional School District Superintendent Tom Smith to review and assess enrollment trends in the district, presented his findings at a Board of Education meeting at Timberlane Middle School Monday night.
He spoke earlier in the day during a closed session of the Future Planning Advisory Committee, established to advise the Superintendent on how the district should accommodate the predicted decline in enrollment.
Grip used the public meeting opportunity to review his findings and methodology, and answer questions from the few members of the public in attendance about how he arrived at his conclusions and why his data show declining enrollment numbers.
Grip’s full, updated report is available on the school district’s homepage.
Grip noted that his analysis uses population data sourced from the Delaware Valley Planning Commission. While Hopewell Township experienced “explosive growth in the 1990s” with the addition of the Brandon Farms neighborhood, Grip noted that the planning commission has readjusted its population projections downward.
“Based on zoning and less housing growth projected, the community isn’t going to grow as much as originally thought,” he said.
In addition, the data indicate a declining birth rate in Hopewell Township overall.
“Fertility rates in all three communities (Hopewell Township, Hopwell Borough and Pennington Borough) are lower than in Mercer County and New Jersey,” Grip said. He did note, however, that the New Jersey Department of Health does not have birth rate information beyond 2010.
He spent time reviewing population pyramid charts delineated by age and gender for the Township and Boroughs in 2000 and 2010. For Hopewell Borough and Pennington, both communities have significant numbers of residents in middle age, but a “gaping hole” of people in their 20s and 30s.
“Based on the median single-family home price, [people in that age range] can’t afford to get here,” Grip said. According to Grip’s experience, this situation is not the norm, and New Jersey as a whole shows a different pattern.
“You cannot get people in here purchasing homes at these prices,” he said. “New Jersey [as a whole] is more racially diverse and socio-economically diverse.”
In terms of future housing growth and firm, planned development proposals, Grip says his data do not show a significant increase that could impact enrollment projections.
During the question and answer period, Grip said he does not believe the projected decline in enrollment is attributable to the economic downturn.
“With a gap as big as you have, with no women on hand to have births, you are relying on a tremendous number of people moving in to the district,” he said. “If the housing market picked up, you’ll gain people that way, but it’s not enough to overcome the decline in enrollment.”
When asked how long it would take for the population pyramid data trends to shift, Grip responded it could potentially take decades. He also noted that the district’s issue is not unique. Grip said he recently did similar analyses for four other school districts in Morris, Bridgewater and Raritan Counties and observed the same problem and issue.
Grip said that while national data overall show an uptick in the number of births, the local story isn’t always the same. Even when the baby boomer generation’s grandchildren begin to have kids around 2020, and the birth rate is predicted to rise it will still take a long time for those children to filter back into the school district.
Fielding questions about whether an upturn in the economy will affect population and enrollment by bringing more young families into the district, Grip replied that historic enrollment data has a much higher correlation on future enrollment numbers than housing sales, from a statistical perspective.
As the Hopewell Township planning board continues to review development proposals, any firm numbers will be shared with the demographer and school district, so they can take those facts into consideration.
Superintendent Smith reiterated that his advisory committee is looking at how the district’s enrollment projections will play out on the short term and long term.
“We do have the benefit of time,” he said. “We don’t have an immediate crisis so we can be thoughtful on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
James Creegan, a member of the Future Planning Committee representing Toll Gate Elementary, says “the bottom line is that there is going to be a decline in the overall student population, but I think it is becoming apparent it will be difficult to predict how much and in which schools.”
Creegan said the Future Planning Committee has broken into subgroups to more closely explore various options to address the district’s declining enrollment, such as the possibility of moving to full day Kindergarten, redistricting, moving the fifth grade to Timberlane Middle School, selling the Board of Education building and property at 425 South Main Street in Pennington and relocating the administrative offices to an existing school or renting space, and expanding the magnet programs (currently STEM only) to include other offerings.
“The goal is to gather specific data we need and prepare our recommendations over the next six to eight weeks to discuss with the whole committee,” he said.