Harwich Wants Quick Remedy To Elementary School Cost Disparity

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District , Municipal Finance

Harwich Elementary School was busy Monday as students picked up materials for remote learning this week. Financial inequities between Harwich and Chatham elementary school costs are the subject of discussions among school and town officials. WILLIAM G. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — There was a sense of urgency expressed by selectmen Monday night when Monomoy Regional Schools Superintendent Scott Carpenter came before the board to discuss the growing inequities in the per pupil budgets in the district's elementary schools.

In the past decade the Harwich Elementary School student population has decreased by 12 percent. At the Chatham Elementary School the enrollment has declined by 39 percent. The number of classes in the schools are decreasing, and the losses are seen as adversely impacting learning and inhibiting the social environment, especially at Chatham Elementary School, where enrollment has decreased from 265 students in FY12 to 170 in FY21 and is projected to drop by another 70 students by FY25. At Harwich Elementary School, enrollment has slipped from 589 students in FY12 to 512 in FY21 and is projected to be in the 470 range by FY25.

As the number of students declines, per pupil cost increases. The per pupil cost at FY12 was $9,430 at CES and $8,489 at HES. This year the cost at CES is $16,879 and $11,885 in Harwich. The projections for FY25 have CES at $26,526 and HES at $13,750.

The inequity is fostered by the way the regional agreement assesses the overall regional budget to the two towns. Local taxes largely fund the MRSD budget, with Harwich currently paying 74.35 percent of the district operational costs, based on Harwich having a much larger enrollment based on a three-year average. Carpenter said Harwich's share could grow to 79 percent by FY25 and as much as 87 percent by FY33 if the situation doesn’t change.

“Both towns are heading to a medium age group of 65. Those people don’t have children. This is not a problem that is going to go away,” Selectman Donald Howell said.

A survey of staff and parents conducted last month had four options: no reconfiguration of the schools; redistricting, with some Harwich students attending the Chatham school; creating an upper and lower school with kindergarten to grade two located in Harwich and grades three and four in Chatham; or having all elementary students attend at HES.

Harwich and Chatham staff preferred the upper and lower school concept while choosing the one school as the least favorite option. Chatham parents supported redistricting, while Harwich parents favored all students in one school.

The simplest and fairest way to address the inequities issue at the elementary school level would be to have each town pay fixed costs for its own elementary school, Carpenter said. That would require an amendment to the regional agreement. Under that approach, Chatham would have paid an additional $572,537 in FY21 and Harwich would have paid $572,537 less.

Moving students from one school to another by redistricting or creating upper and lower grade schools does not address the funding inequities, Carpenter said; it artificially shifts per pupil budgets, pushing spending at HES up and down at CES.

A working group has been formed with members from the school committee and administration and selectmen representatives from each town to examining the issues. Carpenter said school officials are working to educate everyone on the issues, and there is hope of having some measures that could be brought to town meeting in the spring.

Selectman Stephen Ford, a member of the working group, said officials must act fast because there are serious financial implications for Harwich. A goal is needed sooner than later, Ford said. Selectman Michael MacAskill said input is needed from Chatham selectmen; Chatham selectmen heard the same presentation two weeks ago and made it clear that they support the town retaining its own elementary school.

Carpenter said he is optimistic headway can be made on the fiscal piece this year. Changes in the agreement would require approval by selectmen and town meeting in both towns. The ability of each town to pay its own elementary school costs is currently being discussed with legal counsel.

“I’m reasonably optimistic we can make headway,” he said. “I think the Chatham Board of Selectmen understand this fiscal situation as well.”

With other Cape communities are also facing reductions in student populations, Howell raised the need to look at further regionalization. Carpenter said that was mentioned in Chatham as well.

The decision isn't up to the school committee, said Chair Tina Games. But the working group will bring everyone into the decision-making process, including parents, as it works toward long-term solutions.