About a decade ago, when this artsy southern Oregon community started showing up on magazine lists of the best places in America to retire, school leaders thought they had hit the jackpot.
The wealthy retirees considered it their civic duty to support Ashland's schools, and they volunteered as reading tutors, showed up at bake sales and reliably voted for school levies.
But they also drove up housing prices, pricing out families with elementary school-age children. School officials say less than 20 percent of Ashland's homes now have children in them, and the district is closing one of its five elementary schools this year. It may shutter another one in 2004 or 2005.
Other retirement havens in the West known for attracting progressive retirees are experiencing some of the same growing pains.
In Whitefish, Mont., a growing ski destination, enrollment at the lone elementary school has been declining steadily. In Sedona, Ariz., the school district has survived only by opening its boundaries to students who live beyond the city limits.
"We've got practicing and retired artists who work in the classrooms, a mentorship program, and a 93-year-old who is a recent former member of the school board," Sedona schools Superintendent Nancy Alexander said. "But the perception is that firemen, teachers, policemen -- all the people who work in Sedona -- are not able to afford to live there."
Evelyn Strauss, a 73-year-old retiree from San Francisco, said many of her contemporaries discovered Ashland in the 1960s, when it was a hippie heaven in the center of Oregon's outlaw marijuana-growing community. She noted the people who moved there are predominantly well-educated and that the school district has benefited overall from the influx.
"The schools have been denied nothing that this town is capable of providing," she said.
The median age in Ashland, population 19,500, has climbed from 34.4 in 1990 to 37.9 in 2000, according to census data. At the same time, the city added more than 600 people over 65 as the school-age population fell from 35.5 percent to 32.9 percent of the total.
Today, million-dollar homes are perched on Ashland's foothills, while on the other side of town, an expensive development for seniors flanks Interstate 5. High-priced homes still sell quickly, despite the flagging stock market, said Marie Donovan, who co-owns the real estate company Ashland Homes. The least expensive home sold in town last year went for $149,000.
As those houses sold over the years, Elisa Stevenson's classroom at Briscoe Elementary emptied and grades at the small brick school were merged.
On a recent day, only about a dozen first- and second-graders were working on an arithmetic lesson in her classroom. Stevenson and an aide watched over them -- a 6 to 1 ratio of students to adults.
George Kramer's children attend Briscoe Elementary. The consultant on historic preservation said a lot of good things can come out of having well-to-do, socially involved retirees in the community.
"Still, soon enough the only children in Ashland will be visiting Grandma," he said.
And Briscoe will be closed in June because of its small size and because it needed significant upgrades to meet seismic safety and disability access building codes, Principal Michelle Zundel said.
Other area schools could follow suit, especially as more parents turn to private or home-schooling.
"There are open classrooms in every school building. Briscoe itself has two classrooms that aren't used for children, and 20 years ago that wasn't true," Zundel said.
Some of the West's wealthy retirement communities are turning to affordable housing programs to help lure families.
In Sedona, a newly formed city committee is examining the housing issue, Alexander said. Whitefish schools Superintendent Jerry House said developers often strike deals to build a certain percentage of affordable housing in exchange for other breaks.
In Ashland, city officials have tried to add cheaper housing through zoning and a housing trust. The results so far have not made much of a dent, residents said.
"People keep building what they call affordable housing, but retirees buy them, or people who want to rent them out, or who want weekend homes," said Richard Presicci, whose child will attend Briscoe until June.
Added Kramer: "The fact that the retirees are coming in such numbers can't help but change the community. There is some price to be paid for a successful small town."