VERNON — Two years ago, Richard Grip of Statistical Forecasting LLC gave the Vernon Township Board of Education his projections for the future of the population of the district. Last Thursday, he returned to discuss where the district has gone, and gave the board a revised picture of the future.
Looking at the 2011 study, Grip said the population has declined even faster than he predicted. He originally said that the district would have 3,853 students in the 2011-12 school year, but it only had 3,806, a change of 1.2 percent. He had predicted the district would have 3,661 students this year, but the district only has 3,640, a 0.6 percent change.
He said this discrepancy was due to the fact that the original study had accounted for extra PreK students, based on a state-mandated program that has just come out at the time. The program was never funded though, and the district never started it.
Moving on to the present, the township's 2012 population was 23,562, while it was 23,943 in 2010. The majority of the population, 95 percent, is white, and older, with a median age of 40. Vernon is losing younger people as 30 percent of the population was younger than 18 in 2000, but only 24 percent were younger than 18 in 2010.
Grip believes this decline in overall population will end, and Vernon will slowly begin to add residents. By 2020, he estimates there will be 28,225 residents, but that number will stay flat through 2030. Given this slight increase, the school population will stop declining in 2017-18 but will stay flat. At that point, the district will have between 2,996 and 3,040 students, a loss of 600 to 644 students from 2013.
What's the problem? According to Grip, three factors go into determining his predictions: birth rate, construction and historical enrollment, which is the current and past enrollment in the schools. The first problem Vernon has is not enough babies are being born. In 2003, 268 babies were born to parents in the township, but by 2009 that number had dropped to 209. This, in combination with historical enrollment, leads to what Grip called negative kindergarten replacement, which means more seniors are graduating high school than kindergarteners are entering the system. For example, the graduating class of 2011-12 had 348 students, but the kindergarten class that started this year had only 221 students. So the district lost 127 students right off the bat and will continue to do so this way for the next five years.
This trend toward lower birth rate should last as well, Grip said. The district's population is aging, so fewer children will be born in the future, and of the women who are of typical childbearing age, which is defined as 20-34, the birth rates are below average. In this range, 82 out of every 1,000 women in Vernon are giving birth, as opposed to 86 out of 1,000 in Sussex County and 100 out of 1,000 in the state. The biggest growth rates statewide, according to Grip, are in the multi-ethnic communities in New Jersey, but even those are lower than they've been in the past.
"Vernon is just not producing enough children," he said. "You are not unique in any way, shape or form in this."
In regards to construction, the 2011 study reflected potential for 167 new housing units, based on plans that had been submitted to the township for approval. Only two of those developments have started construction, and the largest one, a proposed 132-unit community planned for the land next to McAfee Ski, is not one of them. Even if they all were to be built, they would only contribute approximately 88 children, based on a formula from Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy Research.
"You have so many things against you that there is no way for housing to mitigate it," said Grip.
So what does this mean for the district? By the 2017-18 school year, every school will have significantly fewer students and will be well below capacity in the high school and the primary schools, Cedar Mountain and Rolling Hills, losing the most. The high school can hold 1,432 students, but will only have 938 students, and the primary schools will have 693 students when together they can hold 1178. According to his calcuations, Walnut Ridge will be closest to its capacity, with 499 students to fill a space that can hold 611.