HARWICH — The selectmen and finance committee got an up-close look at the proposed Monomoy Regional School District budget Monday night. The school district is seeking a total of $40,901,482, with Harwich being asked to contribute $26,754,276, close to a 4.5 percent increase over the current year.
With student enrollment down by 58 since FY16, a reflection of the overall decline in school-age children in the district and on the Cape, a reduction in 8.5 staff members is being proposed, said MRSD Superintendent Scott Carpenter. The budget acknowledges decline in students while maintaining level services and all program opportunities, he said.
The impact is more noticeable in Harwich, which is generating 65 percent of the student population compared to 22 percent from Chatham. School choice is responsible for 13 percent. Shrinking numbers at Chatham Elementary School are largely responsible for a minimum contribution shift toward Harwich, he said.
Harwich's increase in students is “double edge sword” for the community, Carpenter said, explaining more kids in the town is positive, but it makes school costs go up. After a sixth grade bubble graduates, the student population should go down, he added
The budget increase has been impacted by $432,000 in unanticipated special education out-of-district placements this year. Without those required placements the overall budget increase would be 1.96 percent. Health insurance, bus transportation and contract negotiations have helped support the low budget increase. He added that the cost per day per student is $123.33.
Town officials had questions about school bus transportation contracts, school choice, excess and deficiency funds and how staffing decisions fit in with strategic improvement plans.
Selectman Michael MacAskill wanted to know about the school bus transportation deal the district has made with the Cape Cod Collaborative. He said $159,000 was added to the budget and “it will be difficult for us to provide those funds.”
Business manager Kathleen Isernio explained the conditions decision to work with the collaborative came after the district went out to bid twice for transportation services but received no bids.
“We can't award a contract if nobody bids,” Carpenter said.
Selectman Donald Howell wanted to know if the the district held a pre-bid conference session for school bus companies. Isernio said a number of companies expressed an interest in bidding but did not bid. She emphasized she followed the state procurement provisions.
Carpenter said the district used $705,000 in excess and deficiency funds in fiscal 2018, but the proposed budget only includes $550,000 from that account. He stressed the importance of keeping a reserve available to smooth out annual school budgets.
Comparing the excess and deficiency account to free cash, finance committee member Angelo LaMantia wanted to know why the school department couldn't reduce the $1.5 million reserve “rather than having the money sitting in a closet for next year.”
Finance committee member Jon Chorey wanted to know what the district is doing to keep students from leaving the district, noting that 67 students have departed. All school officials can do is reach out to those students, Carpenter said, admitting once they have left it's hard to get them back.
Carpenter played up the district's bright spots, noting that “our middle school has the greatest performance standards on Cape Cod right now.”
Finance Committee Chairman Dana DeCosta said his committee and selectmen asked that the school budget increases be held to 3.25 percent, but they have been larger over the past few years to assist in getting the regional district started. He said he has hear disparaging remarks about those contributions.
Daniel Twork wanted to know about staffing and how it fits into the strategic plan. Questions were raised about the shift from Spanish to science at the elementary school level. Carpenter said administrators looked at various areas and where they wanted to be. The strategic planning process identified the need for improvements in science and so a shift was made.
“Losing the Spanish teacher is concerning,” Board of Selectmen Chair Julie Kavanagh said. “It might have brought a lot of people into this district.”
MacAskill also raised questions about technology staffing and the expanded role of a community engagement coordinator. He also questioned the need for two high school assistant principals, adding he'd like to see how that compares to other districts.