HARWICH — There are still a lot of variables, but Monomoy Regional School District Superintendent Scott Carpenter provided selectmen with a draft FY22 budget Monday containing an overall 1.5 percent increase over this year. Harwich’s share of the budget, however, is projected to increase between 2.9 and 3.2 percent.
The student population gap between Chatham and Harwich is becoming a major issue. On Monday selectmen made it clear adjustments in the regional agreement will be necessary in the near future.
As Chatham’s student population declines, the minimum required contribution for Harwich will continue to grow, Carpenter said. This year, Harwich’s contribution was 74.35 percent; in FY22 it will be 75.11 percent, which translates into a $150,000 assessment shift. Based on a 2.9 percent increase, Harwich's share of the $41,879,547 budget will increase by $785,587 to $27,605,633.
Chatham’s contribution will be 24.89 percent next year, and its share of the budget will increase by 0.78 percent, or $69,629, to $8,968,824.
With the greatest student population disparity at the elementary level, Carpenter presented an alternative assessment wherein each town paid for its own elementary school, which would add shift approximately $560,000 to the Chatham side of the ledger. In that case, Harwich would be looking at a 1.3 percent increase and Chatham a 5.8 percent increase, he said.
“It will take a lot of work to get from here to there,” Carpenter said, since that change would require revision of the regional agreement.
Selectman Stephen Ford, a member of the school district's two-town working group on the population issue, said discussions in last Friday’s session indicated it is not likely those issues can be worked out before the May annual town meeting. Ford said Carpenter indicated revision to the regional agreement would not only have to be approved by both towns' boards of selectmen and town meetings, but also by the commissioner of the Department of Education, which would take additional time.
“It did seem Chatham was somewhat sympathetic on the financial side and I would like to see that sooner than later,” Ford said.
Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine asked if a $560,000 arrangement could be worked out in the short term ahead of a change in the regional agreement. Carpenter said he has talked with the district’s legal counsel and Chatham’s town counsel, and both have said the change should be made through the regional agreement.
“We’ll have 75 to 80 percent of the cost and the other town 20 percent,” Selectman Donald Howell said. At that level, regionalization probably would not have passed both town meetings, he said. “It’s not sustainable. I’d hate to see a situation like Dennis-Yarmouth where budgets were not approved. We need a reasonable conclusion so we have something taxpayers can afford without an override.”
“The chore now is seeing if we can work it out,” Ballantine said.
The time has come to bring the regional school committee and selectmen in Chatham and Harwich together to start vetting the issue in a joint meeting, Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers said.
MRSC Chair Tina Games said the working group recognizes this is extremely important and it needs to bring the three entities to the table. It important to be sure everyone is working from the same information, she said.
Carpenter said there are still a lot of unknowns in the budget, including state Chapter 70 funding and health care costs, which he said were reduced from a 10 percent increase to 5 percent, although the actual change is not yet known.
The budget meets the districts mission statement, strategic plans and offers strong educational programs, Carpenter said. While Chatham’s student population is on the decline, the district’s population is level, he added, with an enrollment bubble building at the high school level. There will be 680 students at the high school, which could grow to 700, the capacity for which the school was built, he said.
One of the key drivers of budget increases is out-of-district special education, Carpenter said, but he anticipates that will be fairly stable this year because state circuit breaker funds have been helping out. There is a slight increase in the cost of hiring substitutes, at least partly due to the impact of COVID-19 on staff. He also mentioned the addition of COVID-19 contingency costs for additional custodial supplies and cleaning. There are also more funds for nursing support. He projected a zero percent increase for utilities.
There are a number of capital priorities centered around “refreshing technology” in the budget, Carpenter said, along with capital maintenance needs for the schools.
There will be several more meetings with selectmen as budget the variables become known, Carpenter said.
Cape Cod Regional Technical High School Budget
Cape Cod Regional Technical High School's draft budget calls for $15,812,000, an increase of 1.99 percent over the current year, said business manager Erin Orcutt.
The number of students from Harwich’s enrollment is down by seven from the previous year, providing the town with an 8.1 percent contribution rate for FY22. Harwich is carrying a $1,688,437 figure for Cape Tech in FY22, down 2.8 percent. The town has shown steady decrease in the number of students attending the technical high school since FY14, when 77 students were enrolled from Harwich.
Orcutt said given the financial stress on the towns due to COVID-19, a decision was made this year to use nearly $400,000 of Tech's excess and deficiency funds to offset the budget. The initial budget increase was 2.74 percent, he said.
The CCRTHS budget will also be brought back to the board as the document is finalized.