CHATHAM – For some, the prospect of closing Chatham Elementary School is giving up on the town as a vibrant, diverse, year-round community.
“If we lose our elementary school, the opportunity for a future where we can attract families and gain ground on making Chatham an affordable place to live that's diverse loses ground,” said Brett Tolley.
Tolley served on the now-disbanded Chatham 365 Task Force, which developed a series of recommendations for the select board of ways to help make the town more of a year-round community friendly to young families. With recent discussions about the possible closing of the elementary school, however, former members of the task force, as well as other residents, are pushing to keep the school open. Leading the effort is the Chatham 365 Advocacy group, formed to advance the task force recommendations.
The group is conducting an online survey to gather support for saving the school and to help connect with others who share its vision of Chatham.
“We're seeing a lot of creative ideas from the survey,” said group member Jess Rogers. “But we're still looking for more feedback from community members.” The survey can be found at tinyurl.com/y4bzr92t. It closes Feb. 1.
Continued declining enrollment at Chatham Elementary School is forcing Monomoy Regional School District officials to look closely at the school's future. Enrollment dropped 39 percent since 2012. By 2025, the school is projected to have just one classroom per grade – this year there is only one kindergarten class – with smaller class sizes than Harwich Elementary School. Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter recently posed four options for the future of the district's two elementary schools: no change; “redistricting,” where 50 to 80 Harwich students who live geographically closer to Chatham are sent to CES; creating upper and lower elementary schools; or housing all elementary students at the Harwich school.
The difference in enrollment has created a financial disparity, with Harwich's assessment of the district's total education costs increasing while Chatham's shrinks. At the elementary level, the differences are stark: Harwich now has 512 students while Chatham has 170. Per-pupil cost at CES are nearly $5,000 more than at Harwich Elementary; by 2025, that difference is projected to grow to $12,700.
The Chatham Select Board recently indicated a strong desire to retain the elementary school. Board members said they were willing to entertain the idea of contributing an additional $500,000 or more to the school budget to alleviate the disparity. Whether that can be done without changing the regional school district agreement, which requires approval by both towns' select boards and town meetings, is currently being researched. The agreement mandates that each town retain its own elementary school, so any change to the configuration will require that it be amended.
Select Board Chair Shareen Davis said she expects the issue to be revisited as part of the review of next year's school budget. “It's definitely going to be part of the conversation,” she said.
In October 2019, the Chatham 365 Task Force issued 30 recommendations aimed at helping make the town an affordable place for young families and other year-round residents. The advocacy group was formed to advance the recommendations and was gaining momentum in early 2020 when the pandemic struck, Tolley said. It has since regrouped and been energized by the elementary school controversy.
Group members have connected with people in other Cape towns who are also fighting to maintain a local elementary school, he said. The factors that are making it difficult for young families to live in Chatham – high housing costs, a lack of good year-round jobs – are Cape-wide. The common argument for shutting down schools appears to be dropping enrollment.
“It's almost always the numbers,” he said. Low numbers need not always be a drawback, however; the group is learning that can present opportunities for flexibility and creativity, such as finding alternative uses for school space while efforts are made to boost enrollment, Tolley said.
Rogers, who grew up and attended school here, said Chatham's schools have always been small, something she considers a benefit. She has a pre-schooler who is learning remotely and a first grader being home schooled now, but has been very involved at the elementary school; she is a member of the school council, has volunteered as a room parent and worked with the PTO. She said it's the wrong time to be thinking about closing the school.
“Honestly, looking around Chatham right now, I feel like we don't know what the population will look like after the pandemic is over,” she said, noting that she has friends who have moved back to the town because of COVID-19. “We need to stick with things for now until we see what the outcome is.”
As of Monday there were almost 100 responses to the survey, with many people offering support and ideas to help address the situation, she said. Most indicated a desire to keep CES open. Members of the advocacy group plan to contact a school committee working group that is studying the elementary issue and will be part of future forums and discussions officials have promised will take place before any decisions are made, Rogers said.
Davis, who served on the Chatham 365 Task Force, said she hoped the issue will prompt more people to become interested in the group's goals. “I'm hoping this isn't just one cause,” she said. “There's a bigger picture of community involvement.”
Tolley, who also grew up in Chatham and has two young children, agreed. “I hope the threat of losing Chatham Elementary School can be a call to action for people to not only save the elementary school, but look at some of the root causes” of the enrollment problem, he said.
"Chatham is at a crossroads,” said Tolley. “We can either let things run their course and become another Hamptons-style resort community. Or we can fight for a thriving year-round community, starting by saving our elementary school."