CHATHAM – Selectmen Tuesday unanimously rejected a change to the regional school agreement that would have allowed a realignment of elementary school grades.
After hearing from a number of residents who vehemently opposed the change proposed by the Monomoy Regional School Committee, board members agreed they had to uphold the promise made to residents when schools were regionalized five years ago to maintain a separate elementary school.
Several people also pointed out the irony of officials talking about finding ways to increase housing opportunities for young families while throwing the future of the town's elementary school into question.
“I think if this is passed it will be the final nail in the coffin in terms of attracting families to Chatham,” said resident Elaine Gibbs.
Leaving town meeting out of future decisions on the configuration of elementary schools in Chatham and Harwich also didn't sit well with residents or the board. Under the proposal, once the regional agreement was amended, which requires a town meeting vote, those decisions would be made by the school committee and affirmed by selectmen in both towns.
“I think town meeting, that third prong, is vital to the process moving forward,” said Chairman of Selectmen Cory Metters.
At their next meeting on Feb. 28, school committee members will review the comments made Tuesday as well as comments by the Harwich selectmen, who voted to support the change 3-2. If the committee decides to change the language in the draft, it would then go back to both boards in the near future, with the goal of putting the updated regional agreement before town meetings in May.
Reacting to falling enrollment at Chatham Elementary School, the school committee proposed amending the regional agreement, which currently requires that each town maintain its own elementary school, so that changes in grade alignment could be made in order to keep classroom sizes equal in both schools. A 12 percent drop in kindergarten enrollment forced a reduction from three classes to two in order to keep class size at about 18 students, commensurate with Harwich. Superintendent Scott Carpenter said demographics indicate low enrollment in Chatham will continue, requiring that more grades be reduced from three to two classes in the future. Harwich Elementary School, meanwhile, has on average 1.5 more students per class than Chatham, except in grade three, where there are more students per class in Chatham.
“The building, I would say, is one classroom too small,” he said of Harwich Elementary School.
At some point, however, the class size discrepancy will grow larger, leading to taxpayers subsidizing a smaller class size in one town and potential union trouble if staff at the same grade level are teaching classes of drastically different sizes, he said. Students could also find themselves with the same small peer group through the elementary grades, he added.
School Committee Chairman Nancy Scott emphasized that no grade alignment changes are imminent, but said the group was seeking to change the regional agreement to allow those decisions to be implemented more quickly than they can now. Currently, changing the regional agreement requires approval by both boards of selectmen and town meetings as well as the state department of elementary and secondary education. The change could then not be put in place until the year following the approval. Under the proposed language, elementary grade alignment changes could be made by majority votes of the school committee and selectmen.
If the grades need to be realigned, options include redistricting, which would require students in eastern portions of Harwich to attend Chatham Elementary School, or creating a two-tier elementary system with lower grades at one school and upper grades at another. In a survey conducted by the district, Carpenter said Chatham parents favored redistricting while Harwich parents favored the upper-lower grade configuration.
He said efforts were made to encourage Harwich families to send their students to Chatham, but there wasn't enough interest to bring Chatham Elementary School's numbers up significantly. Before regionalization, Harwich sent a significant number of students to Chatham to take advantage of the school's low class size; at the time there were about 14 students per class in Chatham and 19 to 20 in Harwich, Carpenter said. Those numbers have evened out with regionalization.
Selectman Dean Nicastro suggested more aggressive marketing to Harwich parents “might be the long term solution.”
“I can't help but think if you can get more Harwich students into Chatham Elementary School, that solves our problem,” he said.
There's nothing wrong with having a small elementary school, a number of people told the board.
“Class size should not be the metric for success,” said Michael Westgate. The administration and union should work to solve the class size issue and not jeopardize the sense of community that comes with a local elementary school.
“Chatham needs one [elementary school], not just half a one,” he said.
Lindsay Garre Bierwirth moved her family to Chatham, where she grew up, so her kids could go to school here. There are smaller elementary schools on the Cape than Chatham, and altering the grade alignment seems like “a slippery slope.”
“It's important for your child to go to school in the town they grow up in,” she said, adding that some of her peers are looking to move here and the schools are a big factor. “We need to keep our Chatham Elementary School the way it is.”
Her husband, Fred Bierwirth, referred to a discussion earlier in the meeting about helping seniors age in place.
“Let's let our kids learn in place,” he said. “Let's let them learn in this town.”
Former Selectman Florence Seldin suggested there was no reason to change the regional agreement at this point. “We can't change the agreement every time the demographics change,” she said. Referring to the contention surrounding the decision to regionalize schools – which passed in Chatham by just 61 votes – she added, “Why recreate the divisiveness and unease unnecessarily?”
Voters were promised Chatham would continue to have its own elementary school under regionalization, said resident Bill Bystrom. “I don't think we have the right to take that away,” he said.
Gibbs said taking town meeting out of the decision to make changes at the elementary level was giving “way too much power” to the school committee and selectmen. She feared it could lead to further changes in grade configuration at the middle and high school levels. “I think that's where we're headed if we eliminate Chatham as a distinctive elementary school,” she said.
“It's super, super important for us to maintain our schools, and no one but the parents and town meeting should make that decision,” said Gibbs.
Dykens stressed there's no proposal to “nuke” Chatham Elementary School, but he agreed that “we're fighting a reality, a demographic that's against us.” While “small is beautiful,” he said that “small can be very nasty, too,” creating cliques and bullying situations. While he was conflicted over the issue, he agreed to go along with the majority of the board, which voted to send the draft agreement back to the school committee for further consideration given the comments at Tuesday's meeting.