Last year, the Waterville Valley Elementary School had just 17 students enrolled. This year, the number has nearly tripled, driven largely by students who have moved to the area since January 1, 2020. During that time, the town has seen its population increase roughly 25% to 559 full-residents, said Town Manager Mark Decoteau.
Waterville Valley is a particularly dramatic example, but far from alone. Now that the pandemic has opened up opportunities for many people to live, work and learn remotely, some are taking advantage of that by nestling away in secluded corners of New Hampshire where Covid-19 activity is nowhere near as severe as that of the larger cities. Realtors in some sections of the state are seeing more interest from out-of-state buyers, and school districts in the more mountainous areas where second-home ownership is more common are now seeing new students enroll.
“I think the reason being that they want out of the cities and they want a place to go to – head for the hills as they say – in case we have another surge or pandemic issues down in the metropolitan areas,” said Conway Town Manager Thomas Holmes. The town has seen a lot of people who had second home properties suddenly transfer out-of-state plates to local plates and decide to become residents, he said.
In Mount Washington Valley, SAU 9 — which includes Conway — Superintendent Kevin Richard has welcomed roughly 25 new students. While Richard is used to students coming and going, he said there’s a clear trend related to the pandemic this year.
“We do have that transient population both moving in or out but these are the anomaly: I would say these 25, where their conditions are a little bit easier to recognize that, yeah, it’s related to Covid-19,” Richard said.
Six or seven students in the middle school have enrolled because their families are now living full-time in their second homes.
“Normally they wouldn’t be in school, they have a home school someplace else,” Richard said.
He believes the increase is tied to more remote work opportunities.
“A lot of these folks, typically they would be working in the cities all week long and they come up on the weekends, but now with a big push to remote work, people feel like, ‘well, I guess we can live and work up here and make it work,’” he said.
In addition to increased enrollment and plate transfers, Conway is seeing fewer short-term rentals, Holmes said. Right now there are about 500 AirBNB-type properties in the town, down from 800 in 2019.
“A lot of these things were taken off the short-term rental market due to the pandemic and maybe some people want to keep them open to be able to run to or actually move to,” he said, noting that he doesn’t personally know anyone who’s done that, but the drop in short-term rentals has been significant.
Not all popular second home areas of New Hampshire are seeing this sort of influx in new student enrollments. School officials in Laconia, Moultonborough and Alton said they have not seen a significant increase in enrollment.
Long Term Tax Implications
Richards said that the hot real estate market in Conway can make it difficult for young teachers to find housing.
Waterville Valley school officials did not respond to questions about the enrollment spike, but Decoteau said he knows the school has had to hire additional staff members and that the schools’ materials budget has had to increase due to having more students.
The school system’s budget was set back in March for the school year from Sept. 2020 through the end of the school year in June 2021, he said. That was before the district was expecting an uptick in enrollment.
“They were talking at the school district meeting in March, on March 9, that they were expecting around 20 students for the school year, and their budget was based on that number,” Decoteau said.
In New Hampshire, about 70 percent of school funding comes from local taxes, said Phil Sletten, senior policy analyst at the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.
“When considering how local school districts are funded, with more than 70 percent of the funding coming in one form or another from local property tax revenue, that means that adding additional students does have the potential to put upward pressure on local property taxes depending on what happens with the property tax base,” he said.
If the property tax base — the pool of taxable property — also grows, then that is not necessarily an upward pressure on property tax rates or the amount collected per person, he noted. However, that’s not happening as people move into existing homes in towns like Conway.
Bruce Kneuer, municipal bureau supervisor at the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration, said that having more students could require more taxes in the next budget cycle.
“The following year the tax rate itself would probably be impacted,” he said.
While increased enrollment won’t have any immediate impact on the 2020 tax rate in Waterville Valley, Decoteau said costs will be reflected in the tax rate in 2021. That will be discussed at the school district meeting in March of next year, he said. Since families are moving into existing homes — not new construction — there’s no change to the tax base of the town, so the existing tax base must cover the costs.
“It’s going to be interesting and important for us to see how many stay and what that impact is going to be longterm on the town and our schools,” he said. “How many of the students are actually here in school year 21-22?”
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