Could Demo Ban Boost School Enrollment?

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Education , Economic development


CHATHAM – A former finance committee member is urging the board of selectmen to “think outside the box” and impose a moratorium on tear downs to prevent developers from converting more affordable year-round housing to expensive summer homes. Doing so could provide more opportunities for families to remain in town and stem declining school enrollment, which is playing havoc with the budget process.

Roslyn Coleman also suggested that officials find a way to use more than $155,000 in savings from a decrease in the town's share of next year's Monomoy Regional School District budget to save the jobs of teachers slated to be cut under the spending plan.

“I don't like to see teachers lose their jobs,” she said.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter presented the district's $40,901,482 budget to selectmen Monday evening, the highlight of which is a change in assessments that will shift $638,961 to the Harwich side of the ledger while Chatham realizes a $155,764 savings. The chief reason for the shift is changes in enrollment, with 35 fewer Chatham students and 14 more Harwich students, said Carpenter.

“That's a factor of fewer and fewer families in our towns,” he said. Between 2010 and 2017, year-round households in Chatham declined by 11.9 percent, with Harwich dropping 3.7 percent, he said.

“It's not families fleeing to go elsewhere,” Carpenter said, adding that the number of children living in the district but opting to go to charter schools or other districts through school choice has declined. “It's just a reduction in children in the two towns.”

In recent months the issue of how to retain young people and families in town has been a chief topic of conversation among residents and town officials. Selectman appointed a task force, Chatham 365, to investigate ways to maintain a diverse population through programs such as subsidized childcare and preschool, a recommendation of the town's economic development committee. Carpenter encouraged that direction, saying Chatham “has the opportunity to lead the way.” The more social skills and early education kids have, “the more they are ready to walk in that first day of school the better they're going to do,” he said.

Next September's kindergarten class at Chatham Elementary School is projected to have 20 students, Carpenter said, down from 27 this year. That trend is expected to continue, and it will continue to have an impact on the school budget.

The district is down a total of 58 students from three years ago. The latest budget includes the reduction of more than eight full-time equivalent positions, including 3.3 teachers and 5.2 support staff, which Carpenter said is a direct reflection of the drop in enrollment.

“The staff reduction we have is mirroring that decline,” he said.

A group of private residents recently bought a home on Crowell Road which will be sold, at a discount, to the town's affordable housing trust and added to the community's affordable housing stock. That's an innovative way to help save modestly-priced homes which working people can afford, and the selectmen can encourage that by asking town meeting to impose a moratorium on tear downs, said Coleman, who stepped down from the finance committee last July after 18 years.

“It would put a damper on developers' ability to snatch up everything they can and build something that nobody can afford,” she said, urging the board to “go out on a limb” to slow the pace of conversion of year-round housing to vacation homes. “We don't need any more second homes; we need neighborhoods.”

Demolition of homes over the past three years has ranged from 25 to 30 annually, according to the community development department. Most of those homes were replaced with larger houses which tend to be occupied seasonally.

Coleman, who worked as a school psychologist in Wellesley, said she has been taking a video editing course with students at Monomoy Middle School, which she noted is the only Level One middle school on the Cape. The school is “beyond my wildest dreams expectations for what schools should be like” and the students are “problem solvers who are generous and excited,” she said. But she sees that as being endangered by the cuts caused by decreasing enrollment.

Chatham's savings from the school budget shift could be used to prevent layoffs and help young teachers retain their jobs, she said. She asked officials to come up with figures showing how much money Chatham has saved through regionalization and establish a fund the district could use to “ensure teacher excellence.”

Chatham's share of the fiscal 2020 Monomoy budget is $9,178,025. In 2012, the last year the town funded a stand-alone school system, the budget was $9,974,126.

The overall school budget is up 3 percent, largely due to special education out-of-district placements, Carpenter said. School officials were bracing for a larger increase, but an anticipated 10 percent jump in health insurance did not materialize. Excluding the out-of-district placements, the budget is up 1.96 percent, he said.

The drop in Chatham's share of the Monomoy budget cuts the overall increase in the town's 2020 budget to 1.29 percent, said Finance Director Alix Heilala. The town's operating budget is $30,882,920; with the inclusion of Monomoy and Cape Tech, overall town spending comes in at $40,343,557. Heilala said a 10 percent decrease in debt service helped keep the budget numbers down, as did no increase in health insurance costs, “which is huge,” added Selectman Jeffrey Dykens.

The board voted to place the operating budget on the May 13 annual town meeting warrant, but held off on approval pending information from the public works and natural resources departments. The board also voted to place on the warrant and endorse the $2.8 million capital and the $3.1 million water department budgets.

The school committee was expected to approve its budget following a public hearing Tuesday.