Superintendent Scott Carpenter has presented his draft fiscal 2018 spending plan for the Monomoy Regional School District, including an operating budget that's up nearly 5.5 percent over the current budget.
The $38,115,065 draft spending plan includes a $35.5 million operating budget, plus $2.6 million in debt service and $305,000 in capital expenses. All tolled, it would be a 4.8 percent increase over this year's figure.
Though the sting will be felt by taxpayers in both Chatham and Harwich, a shift in the projected assessment means that Chathamites will shoulder a slightly larger share of the burden. Harwich's expected contribution will be $24,787,671, about 3.58 percent up from the current year's assessment. In Chatham, the projected $8,951,215 assessment is up 4.21 percent over FY17. The assessment is calculated based on a three-year average of enrollment figures. A slight increase in Chatham's share contributes to the shift, as does a slight bump in the town's “minimum required contribution” calculated by the state.
The numbers, which remain tentative until the Chapter 70 school aid formula is finalized, assume that school enrollment remains steady. The spending plan holds staffing at current levels, and maintains class sizes around 18 students in the elementary schools and around 19 schools in the upper grades.
Carpenter said 92 percent of the budget increases are contractually obligated. They include more than $742,000 for health insurance, a 12 percent increase for active employees and a 10 percent hike for retirees; nearly $640,000 in staffing contractual obligations, and $240,868 in special education tuition. Other contractual expenses include transportation, various equipment leases, and increases in dental, property and liability insurance.
The budget anticipates roughly steady enrollment. This year, the district has 423 Chatham students, 1,230 Harwich students, and roughly the same number of School Choice students as in previous years. The district expects to receive about $1.5 million in School Choice revenues next year, Carpenter said.
The draft budget allows for the continuation of several current initiatives, including one that provides a leased Chromebook laptop computer for every middle school student, starting in the fifth grade. The district will also continue using specialized reading software, math workbooks, and new high school physics and science textbooks.
The proposed FY18 budget includes one new expense, the addition of another school bus designed to reduce the amount of time students spend traveling to and from school. Currently students on two of the three bus routes from Chatham spend well over 45 minutes on the bus, Carpenter said. With the additional bus, all bus routes will be reduced to less than 40 minutes, with some down to 35 minutes. Adding the new bus will cost the district $62,190.
Carpenter presented the spending plan to the Harwich board of selectmen and finance committee Monday evening. While the board praised Carpenter and district Business Manager Katie Isernio for their presentation, members made it clear that they think a 5.49 percent increase in the operating budget is not sustainable.
Selectman Peter Hughes said he was glad to hear that staffing is being kept level, but he made it clear the town is limited to a 2.5 percent annual increase in property taxes, making a 5.5 percent increase unsustainable in the long run.
Concerns were also voiced by Finance Committee Vice Chairman Larry Ballantine, who said he was “a little disappointed and hoping to get those numbers down to four to 4.5 percent.” He told Carpenter the finance committee would like a separate meeting with him to pose more detailed questions about the spending plan.
Finance committee member Richard Larios also asked whether it was appropriate to have leased technology equipment included in the $305,000 capital plan contained within the budget. Town Administrator Christopher Clark pointed out he has a balanced budget, and made it clear that Harwich's share of the capital costs would be separated from the assessment and put before voters in a separate debt exclusion measure.
On Tuesday, Chatham selectmen heard the budget presentation. Chairman Jeffrey Dykens noted that the district still loses children to other districts through School Choice, as well as to charter schools. He asked which grade levels are most prone to losing students.
Carpenter said that, while some students leave Monomoy just before high school, most of those who depart do so in eighth grade, drawn by the Lighthouse Charter School in East Harwich. “That's where the biggest financial hit is for the district,” he said. Once those students have left, “trying to get them back is a challenge,” he added. For that reason, the district is taking steps to boost offerings at Monomoy Middle School, including the Chromebook laptop initiative.
Board member Seth Taylor asked what reasons the departing students give for their decision to leave Monomoy. “Have you done that outreach?”
Carpenter said exit interviews show that students who leave before high school often do so to pursue what they see as better athletic opportunities in larger districts. The reasons are less well defined for middle schoolers, he said.
“There is a perception in some families that the grass is greener on the other side of the hill,” he said.”
The Monomoy school committee will hold its public hearing on the budget on Thursday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the high school. Following any revisions to the spending plan, the school committee will vote on the budget at its March 9 meeting, after which the approved budget will be sent to the towns.