CHATHAM – The only contested race in the June 25 annual town election is for two three-year terms on the Monomoy Regional School Committee. Incumbents Nancy Scott and Jacqueline Zibrat-Long are being challenged by Robert Hessler and Elizabeth Taylor. Selectman Shareen Davis is running unopposed, as is housing authority member Janice O'Connell. Polls will be open at the community center from noon to 6 p.m.; to request an early voting or absentee ballot, contact the town clerk's office or visit the town clerk's page on the town's website, www.chatham-ma.gov.
A member of the town's zoning board of appeals for the past 10 years, Robert Hessler acknowledges that he is not an educator, but during a long corporate career in Delaware he worked with educational organizations and after moving to town he served as a substitute teacher at Chatham High School for two years. He decided to run for school committee after being involved in the effort to locate a new senior center on middle school property off Stepping Stones Road.
The committee voted not to give up control of the property to the town before residents had an opportunity to vote on whether they preferred the Stepping Stones Road or 1610 Main St. as a senior center site. Politics played a role in that decision, he said, and it shouldn't have.
“I think this school board forgot who they represent,” he said. “I think on the Stepping Stones issue they completely ignored what was obviously a significant mandate from the voters who signed the petition saying they wanted to consider Stepping Stones. I think that was wrong.”
The committee has also not been mindful of fiscal restraints and has “rubber stamped” new programs pushed by the administration. “I don't think they're being responsible in adopting these programs that cost lots of money without giving thought to who their constituency is,” he said. In Chatham, a majority of taxpayers don't have children in the schools. “I think the school committee ignores where their money is coming from,” he said.
Hessler was head of public relations for a Delaware chemical company, where he was responsible for corporate giving and focused on public and private schools on grants for a variety of educational programs. He and his wife were actively involved in the education of their two children, and he also served as board member, chairman and president of Delaware Planned Parenthood, which was a resource for the state's schools.
He moved to Chatham in 2003 and has been active in the community, serving as a trustee of the First Congregational Church and board member for Cape Cod Village, an educational residential facility for autistic adults in Orleans.
Financial concerns are even more critical now, as towns struggle with revenue shortfalls which will be felt in the school department, he said. “Things are never going to be the way they were. That has to become part of the thinking process for the school committee, for the management of the school system, for anybody involved in education.”
Given the continued low enrollment at Chatham Elementary School, it makes sense to look at some sort of merger with Harwich Elementary School to realize economies of scale. “I think they have proven with the merger of the high school that the quality of education has not declined; I think it improved, largely. He would not rule out retaining the elementary school in some form, and said the town should have an equal say in the final configuration of elementary education in the district.
Nancy Scott was elected to the first Monomoy Regional School Committee in 2011 and has served as one of Chatham's four representatives ever since.
“I enjoy the experience of being on the committee, I enjoy the camaraderie we have on the committee,” she said. “We have our disagreements and we have our differences of opinion, but I think we all respect where we're coming from.” She respects the diversity of the group in terms of backgrounds; some are former educators, some are not. She currently works in the financial sector and taught for four years in the early 2000s.
“I can see the perspective of where teachers are coming from, having been a teacher. I also now look at it as somebody from the private sector. I feel I have a pretty good balance of being able to see both sides,” said Scott, who has two children in the school system.
Her main goal as a member is to “make sure the kids of Monomoy have the best education and make sure the towns can pay for it.”
Dealing with the declining elementary enrollment is “going to be emotional,” she said, noting that an attempt to change the regional agreement to allow the school department latitude in shifting grades between the two elementary schools drew significant opposition, which committee members heard. She feels Chatham should continue to have its own elementary school, but the low enrollment is going to make that difficult.
“There's just not going to be enough kids for diversification,” she said. “What it's going to look like and what it's going to have, I don't know. Ultimately it's going to have to be a change to the regional agreement, and that has to be supported by everyone or it's not going to happen.”
Because Harwich won't set its budget until the fall, the school department has to adopt a monthly budget per state guidelines, which makes forecasting the fiscal situation difficult, she said.
“It's so huge now, and it's going to be very similar in fiscal 2022,” she said of the impact of the pandemic. She serves on the school committee's fiscal subcommittee, and said her goal is to maintain as much of the existing program as possible.
“The kids have had so much change I'd hate to see their programs and what they've come to know and expect change,” Scott said. A new ELA curriculum, in the works for several years, was postponed, she noted, because it didn't make sense either financially or academically to roll it out during this period of uncertainty.
Over the next few months the committee and administration will be dealing with what happens in September, including covering the cost of safety measures if schools reopen. Much of that will be determined by the state, but she expects the school committee will be involved in related policy decisions. “I anticipate it being a group effort, not top down,” she said.
“Right now we're staying focused on getting the kids back in school safely so they can learn how public schools are designed [to learn], with teachers,” Scott said. “We need to make sure the school experience the kids need is there.
“It's a giant puzzle, for sure,” she said. “Fortunately, I like puzzles.”
Elizabeth Taylor has been involved in education most of her life. The value of an excellent education was instilled in her by her parents, and she graduated from Duke University and Michigan State University with a graduate degree in zoology. She homeschooled her children for two years and taught science for 15 years in a public school in Connecticut, where she was district Teacher of the Year in 2009 and a semi-finalist for the statewide honor. She was a science department head for 12 years and served on district-wide school committees, working on curriculum development and a five-year comprehensive plan.
She also served in the Peace Corps and volunteered for community organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, 4-H, PTA and sports organization. She served on the Chatham Charter Review Committee and is on the board of the Chatham Music Club and the Chatham Garden Club.
She decided to run for the Monomoy School Committee after being involved in the Stepping Stones Road senior center issue. Committee members should represent voters, which she said they were not doing by taking a vote on the future of the land before residents had a chance to address the issue at town meeting. It should have been “more of a collaborative effort between the voters and the school board,” she said. “They certainly put the brakes on the whole process by taking a vote before the voters expressed themselves.”
The biggest fiscal challenge facing the committee is integrating concerns over spending, such as those expressed by Harwich voters and leaders, with providing a quality education, which should be the top priority of the committee. Those fiscal concerns are reasonable, she said, expressing her own concerns about the amount of administrative support in the district.
“Keeping class size small and giving teachers the ability to be creative is important,” she said.
This year the budget was kept level after several years of increases, but it shouldn't take an emergency like the pandemic to fine-tune spending, she said. Chatham has to recognize that as its enrollment decreases, Harwich shoulders more and more of the district budget, which puts more financial pressure on the neighboring town.
Every effort should be made to maintain the Chatham Elementary School, said Taylor. “Research has consistently identified the benefits of small schools that are directly integrated in a community,” she said. As Chatham's elementary enrollment continues to drop, however, adjustments will have to be made, such as moving the elementary grades into the middle school. She said she has concerns about bolstering elementary enrollment through school choice; while the cost at that level is small, higher enrollment increases cost in the upper grades.
“There's a long-term effect of bumping up elementary grades simply to keep class size up,” she said.
In the short term, the committee will have to deal with the consequences of online education over the past several months. “There are going to have to be all kinds of adjustments to that,” she said.
“As local revenue is likely to be restricted, the reduction or elimination of programs may become necessary. Careful consideration of any reduction in programming or staff will require the presence of experienced educators on the board,” she said.
Jacqueline Zibrat-Long said she has enjoyed her past four years on the regional school committee and learned a lot about how the district operates.
“The work we have accomplished and the many hours we have ahead of us drive me to run for another three years so that I can continue to support the positive growth of our district, protect its integrity and continue to represent our town's taxpayers,” she wrote in an email.
The main challenge the district faces is developing and “redeveloping” a budget given the anticipated financial fallout of the pandemic.
“We have never faced such a challenging financial fluctuation in a matter of months,” she said.
The enrollment decline at Chatham Elementary School is not new, and it's something the committee has been dealing with throughout her tenure, she said.
“Each year the enrollment fluctuates and we deal with it at that time as best we can while maintaining equitable class sizes through out both elementary schools,” she said. “Keeping our kids in Chatham, as promised, is extremely important to me and I will continue to work towards that goal.”
She said she has confidence in the two people chosen as new leaders of the high school and middle school, Jen Police and Adam O'Shea.
“I believe both have a lot to offer their new positions as well as a benefit of having the veteran experience in our district and with our students,” she said.
Zibrat-Long has been active in the Chatham Girl Scouts, Chatham Elementary PTO and the Chatham Merchants. She was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the school committee in 2016, and one a full term the following year. A Chatham native, she has two children in the school system.