Bye, bye, babies, babies goodbye?
Wilton is recognized as one of the safest towns in the United States, as well as one of the wealthiest towns in Connecticut, but one claim to fame it cannot make is being one of the most abundant when it comes to having babies at a high rate.
Births, which along with incoming family moves help to create and stabilize the local public school population, have been fairly flat in town for nearly a decade, according to records on file at the office of the town clerk.
In all of 2016, 120 babies were born in Wilton, which is more or less in the same ballpark as in every year in town for the past seven years, according to the data. There are years with somewhat more, like 133 in 2015, and years with somewhat fewer, like 100 in 2012, but there has been no remarkable difference in the birth rate.
And that, as simple an observation as it may be, is where the town’s concerns begin.
It could make a world of difference when planning for multimillion-dollar school construction projects, said Patrice McCarthy, general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, which is currently studying the state birth rate and its impact with a demographer from the University of Connecticut.
Those results are unavailable.
“These issues are complex, and one needs to be careful making projections which have implications for school buildings,” McCarthy said.
“The last thing a district wants to do is close a building and find out five years later they need to build a new school.”
That is certainly the case here regarding the Miller- Driscoll School renovation. The building is wellknown for its surplus space, something town officials are studying.
“The Wilton public schools’ declining enrollment has been much discussed by the town’s various boards,” said First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice.
She sees it as a problem not unique to Wilton.
“National, state and Wilton birth rates have all declined since the recession (2007-09) due to a number of factors, including delayed pregnancy and less children per household,” Vanderslice said.
The number of births and the number of families with children moving to town are the major factors for the school population. Overall student enrollment was studied extensively in 2015 by the firm Milone & MacBroom and was projected at that time to decline in the Wilton school district over the next eight years, with the most dramatic decline projected to occur in the first five years.
According to the firm’s report, over the eight-year window, kindergarten through second grade enrollment is projected to decline between 5.3% and 8.5%, while third through fifth grade enrollment is projected to decline between 23.1% and 25.9%.
Sixth through eighth grade enrollment is expected to decline sharply, according to the report, which projects declines between 16.2% and 20.8% by the end of the eight-year window.
Enrollment declines at the high school level “are not projected to materialize for the next few years, but a drop-off in enrollments is expected to occur beginning around 2018-19.”
Over the eight-year period, total declines projected in Milone & MacBroom’s report range from 8.8% to 14.8%.
Milone & MacBroom examined factors that influence school enrollments, including demographic, birth, housing development, and real estate trends, as well as private school enrollments, which have been “very stable,” according to the report.
According to the report, “the Great Recession sparked a sharp decrease in fertility rates from 2007 to 2011 to reach all-time lows, which have not yet recovered.”
From 2000 to 2010,Wilton’s total population increased approximately 2.4% — from 17,633 to 18,062, according to the report, which noted that the town’s population growth was slower than its housing growth, which increased 5.9%.
The population change was experienced unevenly across different age groups, according to the report, which noted a 12.5% increase in the school-age population and a 23.6% decrease in the number of children under 5 years of age.
“Coinciding with this trend was a broad decline in the adult population between 30 and 44 years of age, corresponding to a cohort likely to have young children,” the report said.
Annual births in Wilton have been declining since 2000 and the birth rate experienced a “double-dip decline” in 2004 and post-recession.
However, that could be balanced out because the report also noted a “recent Fairfield County phenomenon” — a rising birth-K ratio, which has increased by 14% to its current 1.79 level in Wilton since 2011-12. According to the report, this is a “strong indication of families moving in with children ready to enter school.”