Enrollment at the six schools operated by the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union is significantly lower than anticipated by budgets approved by voters in early March, a dip that may be partly attributable to an increase in students choosing home study amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Sept. 28, according to recent board materials, enrollment at the schools, excluding pre-kindergarteners, totaled 1,001 students -- a figure that is 94 students lower than budgetary projections.
The decline has been discussed at successive meetings of the board that oversees one of the six schools, the Mettawee Community School, which serves students from Pawlet and Rupert through the sixth grade.
"It is true," BRSU Superintendent Randi Lowe said in response to a question about the matter at the Sept. 14 meeting of the Mettawee School District board. "Enrollment is down across our supervisory union within our schools, even despite all of the move-ins."
Most school districts in Vermont saw a decrease in enrolled students this year, Lowe said at Mettawee's Oct. 13 board meeting.
The five other BRSU schools -- Currier Memorial School, in Danby; Flood Brook School, in Londonderry; Sunderland Elementary School; The Dorset School; and Manchester Elementary Middle School -- are governed by the Taconic and Green Regional School District board.
Nearly a quarter -- 22 percent -- of students enrolled at the elementary and middle schools have opted to participate remotely for the entire year, according to board documents from last month.
That option -- an alternative to the supervisory union's "hybrid learning disposition" that splits grades into "cohorts," with each group attending in-person classes on certain days of the week and participating remotely on the other days -- was offered "in order to hopefully keep folks within our system without going to home study," Lowe said at the Mettawee board meeting last month.
Unlike students participating remotely at one of the six schools, students enrolled in the Vermont Home Study Program -- which has seen a marked increase in enrollment statewide this year -- are not considered to be students enrolled within the BRSU.
There are now 101 students residing within the BRSU who are enrolled in home study, up from 60 the previous year. "Eighteen of these students reside in the Mettawee School District, 1 in Winhall and the remaining 82 students live in T&G towns," Lowe wrote in board documents this month.
As of Sept. 21, there were 4,409 students enrolled in home study across the state, according to Ted Fisher, director of communications and legislative affairs for the Vermont Agency of Education, and the agency was processing enrollment paperwork for another 281 students.
Only 2,140 students were enrolled in home study at the same point last year, Fisher noted.
The program's page on the agency's website states that its "enrollment process is experiencing significant delays (approximately 5-6 week backlog as of 9/11/20) due to substantially increased demand" and that it "will not be able to meet the usual 14-day deadline for responding to your application."
The Winhall Town School District, which is also a part of the BRSU, does not operate any schools, instead paying for its students to attend schools outside the district. In contrast to the other two districts in the BRSU, its enrollment has exceeded projections, raising concerns about a potentially sizable budget deficit.
The Winhall district's voter-approved budget forecast a total of 202 students in kindergarten through high school, but that figure was hovering around 235 students last month, according to board documents.
Mettawee students in grades 7 through 12 and T&G high-school students also have school choice. Enrollment numbers in those grades are roughly on par with what budgetary figures reflect; 142 tuition students are enrolled in the Mettawee district, one more than anticipated, and about 648 tuition students are enrolled in the T&G district, approximately four more than expected.
Sue Wilson, business manager at BRSU, said at the September Mettawee meeting that the supervisory union may not have a clear picture of enrollment for quite some time.
"This will play out and we will know better — maybe not [by] the end of this year but perhaps next year — what true enrollment is going to be, after all is said and done," Wilson said.
Mettawee board member Scott McChesney, who is also a real-estate agent, said at the same meeting that he expected there to be an uptick in enrollment because of an "influx" of young families to the area amid the coronavirus pandemic but that there might be moving-related "lag time."
"There's a lot of second homes turning into primary homes," McChesney said.