Special town meetings will likely be held in Chatham and Harwich in the fall to consider changing the way school costs are apportioned to each community in the Monomoy Regional School District agreement.
The change would address the financial disparity in elementary school costs that has developed due to declining enrollment in Chatham, and would essentially call for each town to pay for its own elementary school.
Because the change requires approval by state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley, as well as the school committee and both towns' select boards, there is not enough time to get it in front of voters at May annual town meetings, according to Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter.
“It's entirely possible that the department of education might say no, you need to change this, otherwise the commissioner of education is not going to sign off on it,” he said. A fall special town meeting would also provide time to discuss the future of Chatham Elementary School, he said, which town officials have indicated needs to be part of any change in the funding formula.
The current regional agreement, negotiated a decade ago when the two towns merged school systems, calls for each town's contribution to the budget to be apportioned according to a three-year rolling enrollment. Next year's budget forecasts Harwich's share at 75.11 percent and Chatham's at 24.89. Based on those figures, Harwich will pay $27,605,633 of the draft $41,879,545 budget, while Chatham will contribute $8,989,824.
The drop in the number of students at Chatham Elementary School, however, means that the per-pupil costs at the school are significantly higher than at Harwich Elementary School. Chatham Elementary has a current enrollment of 170 students, while Harwich Elementary has a population of 512. By Fiscal 2025, CES is expected to have 100 students, while there will be 470 kids at HES.
Under the current formula, Harwich could be paying as much as 87 percent of the district budget by 2033.
Carpenter has proposed that Chatham pay the entire operating costs of its elementary school, which would increase its assessment for the upcoming budget by $475,000, with a commensurate reduction in Harwich's school contribution. (The Chatham Select Board agreed to place an article seeking that amount to add to the school budget on the warrant for the May annual town meeting; see related story.) Staff changes and health insurance decreases account for a reduction from the $570,000 estimate Carpenter had used previously. Chatham's select board has appeared amenable to that, with a majority strongly favoring retaining the town's elementary school over other options proposed by Carpenter, including creating upper and lower elementary schools and closing Chatham's school and moving students to HES.
Because the regional agreement language won't be changed before annual town meetings this spring, both towns would have to appropriate their full share of school costs. If the change is approved in the fall, Carpenter said the adjustment would be made to the budget retroactively or reflected in payments going forward.
While Harwich officials are concerned about the financial inequity, Chatham officials have said if there is a long-term solution to saving CES, paying more might be an easier sell, said School Committee Chair Tina Games. That makes it important for the school committee to tackle both issues; the agenda for tonight's meeting (Jan. 28) includes discussions of the financial inequities in the regional agreement and plans to solicit public opinion on the future of the elementary schools. It will also be critical to get all the stakeholders in both towns to the table as soon as possible to get that conversation going, said Carpenter
“We need to have all those voices at the table, and that's going to take time,” he said.
It's important to get the public involved in the amendment process early, said Chatham School Committee member Nancy Scott. “If we don't start involving the public now, we're going to have a roadblock when that time comes,” she said.
The school department has conducted two surveys about the future of the elementary schools, with a majority of Harwich residents favoring one consolidated school while those in Chatham favored keeping CES open or creating upper/lower elementary schools. The Chatham 365 advisory group – an offshoot of a task force that developed recommendations to create a more diverse community – is also conducting a survey about CES' future.
A working group of school committee, select board members and town staff has held two meetings about the elementary school issue and will meet again Jan. 29, when they will begin looking at the wording of a regional agreement change. Other changes eliminating transitional language from the agreement, postpone from town meetings last year, may also be included in an article amending the document in the fall, Carpenter said. There will be no change to the requirement that each town maintain a separate elementary school.
“It buys everyone the time I think we need on that piece of it,” he said.