Needham school enrollment is stable/ Credit: Needham Observer

While many surrounding towns are forecasted to have a shrinking number of school-age children over the next decade, Needham is predicted to remain relatively stable. 

“We’re not looking at the big falloffs like they are in Wellesley, Newton and Brookline,” said Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst. 

According to the Massachusetts Department of Secondary Education, Wellesley will experience a drop of 16% from 2022 to 2027. The Newton School Committee considered using school choice, a program it had long opposed, to offset an anticipated 8% drop. Last Monday, facing community opposition, the Newton School Committee voted 6-1 to abandon the idea.

Needham may avoid some of the hard choices that lie ahead for towns that are losing school- age population. Needham School Committee Chair Liz Lee said when schools have to close, it’s difficult for the entire community. “We’re not faced with that and that’s great,” she said. 

“When your enrollment is stable, it allows you to plan and to grow in a thoughtful way,” said Gutekanst. He couldn’t explain why Needham is bucking this demographic trend. 

Lee said a combination of factors make Needham a destination for people with children or for those planning to have children. “We have very high quality, child-centered education in a community that is family- and child-friendly with reasonable taxes and, in general, competent and stable leadership across the whole town,” she said.

Projecting accurate enrollment data is critical to plan long-term funding and classroom space. School expenses account for more than half of the town’s budget. Needham uses the services of a professional demographer, Jerome McKibben, to make these forecasts. McKibben said he has been a consultant for Needham for about 10 years. He said he has done more than 2,000 school enrollment forecasts, including 50 in Massachusetts. 

Responding to McKibben’s projections, Gutekanst said, “They have been pretty reliable over time. There may be some grade levels that McKibben didn’t get exactly right, but the numbers have been pretty spot on.”

According to McKibben, Needham’s favorable projections are a result of not having passed through “the turnover age” — the point when aging forces people out of their homes —at as high a rate as its neighbors. 

“It’s not empty nests that drive people to downsize, it’s the death of a spouse or the inability to drive,” McKibben said. “There’s a giant wave of baby boomers, and they will be downsizing in the next 10 years. They will be replaced mostly by young families with children. The question is will they move in fast enough and in big enough numbers to fill in the gap. We think Needham will do so.”

McKibben said he pioneered a method of making a demographic forecast that uses cohort-component forecasting. He said his approach creates a more accurate result than the state’s, which focuses on past trends. “Ours is a forecast. We look at 20 different factors. They look at maybe two,” he said.

These forecasts determine how large a school building the state will allow a town to construct. The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and Needham sparred over space needs at Sunita Williams Elementary School and are likely to do so again when Pollard reconstruction is addressed in the fall.

Gutekanst said McKibben’s forecast for the school-age population was more accurate than the state’s when the Sunita Williams was being planned. “We argued to the MSBA and said that we’re bucking the trend. The MSBA said Needham’s enrollment would decline like everyone else. We settled on a number that wasn’t what we wanted and wasn’t what they wanted, and at the end of the day we were right,” he said.

“We settled on an enrollment capacity of 430 and now there are over 500 students in that school.”

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