Anyone who has lived in Chatham for more than 10 years will remember the heated controversy surrounding the merging of the Chatham and Harwich school districts, which narrowly passed in Chatham.
This wasn’t the first time the concept of regionalization was proposed, but at the time Chatham was faced with serious declining enrollment, and Harwich was in need of a new high school facility estimated to cost $40 million, which the state would not fund, so Harwich needed to find a town with which to partner in order to take advantage of regional school reimbursement.
The resulting merger has turned out to be successful, fiscally and educationally, for both communities. The Monomoy Middle School has been ranked among the best for several years running, and Monomoy High School for the past two years. The depth and breadth of educational courses, activities, and athletics has increased substantially with regionalization.
When the plan to regionalize was finalized, it contained a promise that each town would have its own elementary school, and the merger of students would begin at the middle school age. This was an important and pivotal element in bringing the vote to pass.
I served on the Chatham-Harwich Interim School Committee which was established after the vote was taken, and it was our responsibility to oversee the union of the two school systems. I had been a teacher in a regional school for 34 years and had the experience of serving on the school committee in the town where we lived, so I could understand the challenges being faced from more than one perspective.
Living off Cape, it was not unusual seeing older students attending schools not in their home towns. Regional schools had become popular as well as vocational schools, and both of these were often regional. Private religious high schools could be found in many localities, usually covering several towns. Some ninth graders were also going to private boarding schools at this age. Students were getting of the age where they were thinking of career choices and future goals. Larger schools could offer a variety of programs which would give parents and students choices a small-town school system could not provide.
Now Harwich is in the position of having fiscal difficulties. It seems there is an inequity in funding the regional school system because the lower enrollment at Chatham Elementary School results in a higher cost per student as compared to Harwich Elementary School. The superintendent of schools is proposing that we consider various methods to alleviate the inequity.
Four different proposals are being considered, all of which would impact Chatham Elementary School. Only one of the four proposals keeps Chatham Elementary as it currently exists today. Two of the proposals would require Chatham students to be bused to Harwich, and one proposal would require Harwich students to be bused to Chatham.
Although busing the students makes sense for the higher grades, the residents in both Chatham and Harwich were adamant that the elementary schools be left in each community. Every town on Cape Cod, even the towns that have regionalized high schools, have their own elementary schools. Provincetown, which has only 120 students in pre-k to grade 8, has its own elementary school. As of yet I have not been able to find a town in Massachusetts that buses its lower elementary students out of town. And neither Harwich nor Chatham is in such dire financial straits that this should even be considered.
The program at the Chatham Elementary School has been widely recognized as outstanding and comparable to the private schools both on- and off-Cape where tuitions can run as high as $50,000 a year. This fine facility has its own cafeteria, gym, library, music room and science lab. Chatham Elementary has benefited greatly by the close proximity of the PARK program at the Chatham Community Center, the non-profit Monomoy Community Services, and the excellent youth department at the Eldredge Public Library. It is also right across the street from the Veterans Field recreation area with its lovely playground and ball fields. Additionally, there is a brand new playground in the schoolyard just recently completed through private donations.
The town of Chatham has made a commitment to invest in its children. It is universally believed that it is best to educate the youngest children in their own hometown.
The discussion regarding the closing of Chatham Elementary School should focus on education, not dollars. The continuation of the Chatham and Harwich elementary schools was guaranteed in the Monomoy regional school agreement. Let’s stand up for Chatham’s youngest citizens and keep Chatham Elementary School.
Bill Bystrom is a retired teacher living in Chatham who served on the Chatham-Harwich Interim School Committee and the Chatham 365 Task Force.