By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — As the School Board wrestles with the 2016-2017 school district budget, the challenge posed by the demographic profile of the student population is emerging as a prominent theme among school officials, school board members and parents.
When the board met last week, Mike Persson, who serves on its Budget and Personnel Committee, stressed that "This budget crisis is happening under the backdrop of an increased need for quality services" and highlighted the "increasing number of children living in poverty."
In a letter to the City Council, Geoff Grey wrote, "I have a pit in my stomach over the future of our city" and asserted that "Our schools are already in trouble and have been for a while." He noted that Zillow, a real estate website, rated two Laconia schools 2, two more 3, and one a 5 on a scale of 10. The number of students taking free and reduced priced lunch he described as "staggering," adding that "the home lives that these children live has a direct impact on their schooling."
Another parent, Aaron Jones, told the councilors that, as the county seat, "Our city is a destination for people in need of services" and noted the "tremendous increase in low-income and subsidized housing" in the last 10 years. "While these services are valuable and important," he continued, "the developments in our city raise questions about plans for the future."
Sean Valovanie, who returned to Laconia 13 years ago to raise a family, was most concerned that "As we continue to choke our city budget, working class families will continue to live elsewhere," and warned that "Retirees and low socioeconomic families cannot sustain a city."
These concerns are starkly reflected by estimates released by the United States Census Bureau in December, 2015. The bureau estimates that the portion of the population with incomes below the federal poverty level climbed from 12.1 percent in 2010 to 15.9 percent in 2014, or from 1,886 to 2,545 individuals.
The number of families and families with children in poverty also rose sharply. In 2014, the incomes of 13.9 percent of all families fell below the poverty line compared to 8.1 percent in 2010. The share of families with children 18 years old and younger in poverty nearly doubled, jumping from 12.5 percent in 2010 to 23.4 percent in 2014. Among families headed solely by women, the portion in poverty climbed from 20.7 percent to 29 percent while those with children 18 and younger leapt from 29.2 percent to 43 percent.
In 2010, children born in poverty represented nearly a third of all births in the prior year, a number that rose to 68 percent by 2014. In 2015, the census reported that more than half the births in the prior 12 months were to unmarried women, with those aged between 15 and 19 accounting for 6 percent and those aged between 20 and 24 accounting for 12 percent of all births. Of all unmarried mothers, 85 percent were high school graduates without further education.
Between 2010 and 2014 the the number of residents receiving food stamps and cash assistance increased 13.7 percent, from 1,441 to 1,639, or about 10 percent of the population.
These statistics are reflected in the number of students who were eligible for the free or reduced program lunch program in the School District when the school began. Altogether 58 percent were eligible at Elm Street School, 50 percent at Pleasant Street School, 68 percent at Woodland Heights School, 53 percent at Laconia Middle School and 48 percent at Laconia High School.
Furthermore, a Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted at Laconia High School in 2015 reported that the prevalence of risky behaviors among students was greater than their counterparts at other high schools in the region and the state. Nearly a third of students reported using marijuana and more than a third reported drinking alcohol. Almost half said that they had engaged in sexual intercourse while 15 percent replied that they were victims of sexual violence and 10 percent responded that they were physically forced to have sexual intercourse.
More than one in five students said they had seriously considered suicide and one in 10 admitted to to attempting to take their lives. Almost a fifth of students said that a family member was serving a sentence in jail or prison, more than a fifth "saw or heard" domestic violence in the home and 45 percent lived in a household where a member abused alcohol or drugs.
When Jim McCollum, the principal of Laconia High School, presented the findings to the School Board this month he said, "This is a picture of our community. This is how our kids live day to day. It is a serious situation."
Interim School Superintendent Phil McCormack said that the district has mounted "a tremendous effort to meet the needs of all children, including those with special needs." He stressed that the district has been fortunate to supplement tight budgets with grant funding.
The district is in the third year of a four-year $2.2 million SafeSchools/Healthy Students grant by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services to promote the mental, emotional and behavioral health of students, including substance abuse, while also providing services to their families. The same agency awarded the district $100,000 to train personnel to address the mental health needs of students. And a five-year $1 million "School Climate Transformation Grant" from the United States Department of Education to pursue the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) program in all five schools.
On the other hand, when the School Board proposed replacing the child care center at the Huot Technical Center with two half-day preschool programs, one parent said the change would benefit only the poor and the wealthy, not middle-income families with two working parents. Another suggested the preschool programs encourage more subsidized housing projects, which would lead the school district to depend more heavily of federal programs to assist low-income familes. Valovanie said that attracting more low-income residents would drive middle-income families to live elsewhere.
McCormack allowed that the magnitude of the budget reductions the school board is facing could limit access to students in needs, but insisted that "people in the schools are committed to doing the right thing and we will meet the needs of these kids."