What was initially a barely-noticed ripple is becoming an obvious wave -- the great American migration to the nation's wide open spaces is waning, and people are increasingly moving back to traditional population centers. Sources as disparate as Bankrate, Nielsen, and USA Today have commented on this emerging trend, and the Urban Land Institute identified a movement toward "walkable" town centers. To bring this closer to home, a recent Star-Ledger article referred to New Jersey's population as undergoing a "seismic shift", and last month the Sussex County Freeholders received draft demographic and economic analyses that reached similar conclusions.
There are several reasons for this transition. First, the Great Recession has been followed by a slow and uneven recovery, which most economists predict will be the norm for the foreseeable future. Home ownership in large suburban tracts has decreased, and increasing numbers of families are downsizing their living spaces. Second, the technology revolution has made commuting to far away workplaces less critical. Employers are becoming more flexible about time and space, and telecommuting is a regular practice for many. Third, millenials (those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) do not share the same lifestyle ambitions as their baby boomer parents. They prefer active communities with diverse options for entertainment, dining, and community living.
These demographic shifts are beginning to change the dynamics for established towns. The Town of Newton is undergoing a renaissance and seeing growth in certain segments of its population. The Newton Public Schools experienced a similar decline in enrollment as did other Sussex County school districts from 2000-2010. But over the past five years, our student numbers are on the upswing, particularly among younger families. Our average enrollment in grades K-4 stands at 91 students per grade level, where grades 5-8 are at 78 students. This was a primary reason we shifted the 5th grade program to Halsted Middle School this year to balance the available space for our elementary and middle level programs.
We are looking at the long term view as well. The Board of Education commissioned a 2011 study to identify facility needs in each of our three school buildings. We have held intensive annual discussions to prioritize facility projects, and we have analyzed staffing levels regularly to allocate our human resources more effectively. The Board recently met with its architect to look at zoning regulations around the current facilities as a step to explore all future options. Each of these activities is being undertaken with the population trends in mind. We look forward to continuing an extended dialogue with our parents and community about these issues as they unfold.