Plunging Enrollment Threatens Chatham Elementary School

By: Alan Pollock

Chatham Elementary School. FILE PHOTO

And Puts Unfair Burden On Harwich Taxpayers

A precipitous drop in enrollment, driven by the loss of young families from town, is threatening the future of Chatham Elementary School. That also has big implications for Harwich taxpayers and the pact between the two towns that form the Monomoy school district.

In the short term, Chatham taxpayers will likely be asked to pay a larger share of the budget for the regional school district, but that won’t solve the problem of declining enrollment. Before long, the towns will have to consider changing the regional school agreement to either send some Harwich students to Chatham by redistricting, change the towns’ elementary schools into “upper” and “lower” grade schools, or simply shutter Chatham Elementary and send the youngsters to Harwich.

The declining enrollment comes as no surprise; some of those options were presented to residents of both towns three years ago, and they were not well received.

“It took three years to remove many of the arrows from my back,” Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter told the school committee last week.

The existing regional school agreement guarantees that each town in the district will retain its own elementary school. But the per-pupil cost at Chatham Elementary – the school budget divided by the number of students – is far higher than in Harwich. While some of a school’s expenses increase with enrollment, like the number of teachers and textbooks, schools also have fixed costs that don’t vary with the number of students, like administrative salaries and utility costs.

“The inequity is not that we are spending more money at Chatham Elementary so that we have a better educational program,” Carpenter said. The programs and offerings at both schools are similar.

Chatham was already spending slightly more than Harwich per elementary student when the districts combined. In fiscal year 2012, Chatham paid $9,430, compared to Harwich’s $8,489. But a decade later, that gap has widened as Chatham’s enrollment has dwindled; Chatham now pays $l6,879 to educate an elementary pupil, while Harwich pays $11,885. If the expected per-pupil cost is multiplied by the number of students expected to attend by fiscal 2033, when today’s kindergartners get their high school diplomas, the inequity is staggering. The cost to educate Chatham elementary students will be about $1 million more than in Harwich.

“The challenge we have is that we have a regional agreement that says that the cost to run the district gets split, where Harwich at the moment is essentially carrying three-quarters of the burden,” Carpenter said. Each town’s budget assessment to the district is based on a three-year average of enrollment, and Harwich now pays 74.35 percent. In the future, both towns’ enrollments are projected to drop, but Chatham’s numbers will decline more quickly, increasing Harwich's share and deepening the inequity between the towns, Carpenter said.

The superintendent is recommending that, for their next town budgets, Chatham and Harwich switch to a system whereby they pay for the operation of their own elementary schools. If implemented, such a change would increase Chatham’s assessment by $572,537 while decreasing Harwich’s contribution by the same. Changing that funding formula means amending the regional school agreement, which requires approval by the board of selectmen and town meeting in both towns.

The Monomoy district has always sought to cap class sizes at around 18 students. Initially, that meant having around three classes for each grade level, but fewer students now means there are two classes per grade at Chatham elementary, and just a single class for some grades. “And we’re struggling to fill the one classroom,” Carpenter said. While he values the intimacy that allows teachers to treat students like family, “you hit a place where things in a school become so small that there are other concerns,” he said.

When he moved to town, Carpenter’s son was a student in the district, and of the 11 students in his class, only two were boys. Thankfully, he found a lifelong friend with one of them, “otherwise it would’ve been a miserable next five years,” he said. Students suffer when there are not enough classmates for group learning, and teachers suffer from a lack of peers to collaborate with, Carpenter said.

In 2017, the district proposed two potential solutions for addressing the dwindling enrollment. One would involve “redistricting” to send some East Harwich students to Chatham Elementary School. The other created a new elementary system with students from preschool through grade 2 from both towns attending classes at Harwich Elementary, with grades 3 and 4 in Chatham. A survey showed that the majority of staff, Harwich parents and School Choice parents favored this “upper and lower” system, while the majority of Chatham parents wanted no change at all. Faced with a stalemate among voters, the school committee decided to revisit the topic in a few years.

“Things have changed in three years,” Carpenter said. Enrollment in Chatham has dropped to the point that that year, it took students opting in from Harwich and two School Choice students to fill out a single kindergarten class, he said.

School officials are now poised to return to the towns with those two options, plus a third.

“In 2025, it would be possible to educate all of Monomoy’s elementary students under one roof with class sizes of 18 or fewer,” Carpenter said. That would mean moving all Chatham students to Harwich and closing Chatham Elementary School. This approach would provide a better experience for students while saving both towns money, he said. Chatham would likely save around $500,000 annually this way, and Harwich taxpayers would save about $1.5 million.

“There are challenges, though,” Carpenter said. If there is a new baby boom, there won’t be room for many additional students. “You have one building, because you’ve let go of the other one,” he said.

All three alternatives will require changes to the regional agreement.

“It was a touchy subject three years ago, and it’s still going to be a touchy subject,” School Committee member Jackie Zibrat-Long of Chatham said. Though most Chatham families would prefer keeping the elementary school open, the dropping enrollment presents a problem that can’t be ignored. “Seeing the numbers is just shocking to me,” she said.

Addressing the enrollment problem is a goal of the school committee, chairman Tina Games said. She and Carpenter will be meeting shortly to form a working group to further advance the discussion, and a survey of parents in the district will be going out next month.

School committee member Terry Russell of Harwich said Carpenter’s presentation was a good starting point for the discussion.

“Somehow the regional agreement, in the next year or two, needs to be amended. Period,” he said.

Details of Carpenter’s presentation are available at www.Monomoy.edu/Page/113.