HARWICH — In a 3-2 vote, selectmen approved a change in the Monomoy Regional School District agreement designed to streamline the decision-making process on grade configuration of the two elementary schools.
Opposition to the proposal centered on concerns that the voice of residents was being removed from the process.
“This language is negating the process of public involvement and putting it in the hands of the school committee and boards of selectmen,” Selectman Jannell Brown said. “It's taking the power away from town meeting and the people who want to have a voice. It comes down to 18 people making a choice. I think that's wrong.”
The proposal was approved by the regional school committee as a means of addressing the disparity in classroom sizes should a gap continue to grow between the Chatham and Harwich elementary schools. It is one of several changes being made to the regional agreement; the amended document will go before voters in both towns in the spring.
Superintendent Scott Carpenter pointed out there are one to two fewer students per class in Chatham school classrooms compared with the Harwich Elementary School. He expressed concern that the differential could grow if enrollment in Chatham continues to decline. It went down by 12 percent this school year.
The anticipated classroom sizes for 2018-2019 for kindergarten are 17 in Chatham and 18.5 in Harwich. In first grade, Chatham will have 17 students to 18.5 in Harwich. Chatham will have 15 in grade two with 16 in Harwich, 14 and 17 in grade three and 19 and 20.5 in grade four.
“This is not a plan to reconfigure,” Carpenter told selectmen Monday night, but a way to “have the capability to adjust if sizes shift dramatically.” That could happen if the disparity between class size in the two schools grows to four students per class, he said in a followup email.
He pointed out Harwich taxpayers are paying 73 percent of the education costs in the district, and given the potential for larger classroom sizes in the Harwich elementary school, the district is looking for a way to equalize the educational experience. That could mean moving students from one elementary school to the other. “It's a relief valve,” Carpenter said.
Under the present agreement, Chatham students go to Chatham Elementary School and Harwich students to Harwich Elementary School. Students can be relocated only in special cases as defined by the school committee.
Such changes now require a vote of the school committee, board of selectmen in both towns, town meeting and state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education approval. That takes time. Carpenter said class sizes could be “off the rail” and it could take a year-and-a-half to address a disparity under the current process.
The proposed language change would eliminate the need for a town meeting vote and state approval related to the elementary school grade configuration, and allow the assignment of students on a basis other than town residence with a majority vote of the school committee and the boards of selectmen in each town.
“Putting elementary reconfiguration as a school committee/selectmen joint approval would allow the system to enact any changes in the following school year, rather than needing to wait another year for state approval,” Carpenter wrote in an email to The Chronicle. The change “doesn't mean there will be elementary reconfiguration, but it opens the door for deciding the process to be at the school committee and the selectmen level, rather than town meeting.”
“It's giving latitude to the school committee and board of selectmen to make that decision,” Board of Selectmen Michael MacAskill said last week. Town meeting will have to approve the change in the regional agreement.
Regional school committee chair Nancy Scott said if the agreement is amended in the town meetings it will not take effect until July 1, 2019. Any future changes to the regional agreement will require town meeting approval.
“My constituents who have reached out to me do not agree with this,” Brown said.
Brown challenged responses to a survey the school conducts on this matter, stating the 453 responses could be little more than 200 families with both parents responding. She said a lot of people didn't understand the impacts of the choices provided.
She said she is a big fan of Harwich students going to Chatham but leaving that decision in the hands of the school committee and selectmen is not the right choice. There needs to be more input from the townspeople, Brown said.
Carpenter said Harwich families can send their children to the Chatham school through intradistrict school choice. He said there are three families doing that now. He also said one kindergarten teacher was moved from Chatham to Harwich to have parity in class sizes.
Selectman Julie Kavanagh said she always wants feedback from the people paying the bills but she was concerned about the impact education if there's a year-and-a-half wait to make adjustments. The change would allow quicker movement, Kavanagh said.
Selectman Donald Howell said he has also heard from parents they are not enthused about the change.
MacAskill emphasized the vote creates the mechanism to make changes to the elementary schools, not the changes themselves. Should that be necessary and there is a high public outcry, the board can act accordingly at that point, he said.
Scott said the idea is to put this out to initiate discussion. “We're looking for an opportunity to have a conversation,” Scott said.
Selectman Larry Ballantine offered a motion to have the board affirm the agreement as presented by the school committee. Brown and Howell dissented.
Chatham selectmen will meet with the school committee on Feb. 12 to discuss the agreement.