An Elementary Dilemma: Towns, Monomoy District Wrestle With Funding Inequity

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Chatham Elementary School , Harwich Elementary School

Chatham Elementary School. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Harwich's share of the Monomoy Regional School District budget has risen steadily over the past several years while Chatham's has dropped, a consequence of plunging enrollment due to a lack of young families, mainly in Chatham. There's no quick and simple fix to that problem, but there is a short-term solution to the financial inequity that has resulted in the district's two elementary schools, and Harwich officials are pushing to implement it sooner rather than later.

“Something's got to be done now,” said Harwich Selectman Donald Howell. “This can't continue to be borne by the Harwich taxpayers. There will come a time when they're going to flat out turn down the budget, then we all have a dilemma.”

At a joint virtual meeting of the Harwich and Chatham select boards and the regional school committee last Wednesday, Chatham officials recognized the inequity but were not willing to commit to paying more without first hearing from residents and getting a direction for a long-term solution.

“I'm not sure it would pass without some understanding and commitment about what's going to happen in the future,” said Select Board member Dean Nicastro. Board members want to examine more closely proposed language to change the regional agreement so that each town pays for its own elementary school, while the school committee has committed to a series of community forums to explore the future of elementary education in the district, the first of which is scheduled for March 4.

At issue is the disparity in the per-pupil cost at Harwich Elementary School and Chatham Elementary School. While enrollment at both schools has declined in recent years, the drop at CES is more dramatic. The school currently has 170 students, a 39 percent drop since fiscal 2012, said Superintendent Scott Carpenter, while HES has 512 pupils, a 12 percent decline. This means it costs almost $5,000 more to educate a student at CES compared to HES. By fiscal 2025, CES is projected to have just 100 students, compared to 470 at HES, pushing the per-pupil cost difference to more than $12,700. The decline in the school-aged population is seen all over the Cape, Carpenter said, but is more acute in Chatham.

The current funding formula in the regional agreement is based on a state-determined minimum contribution for each town overlayed with a three-year rolling enrollment average. This year Harwich will pay 75.11 percent of the $41 million budget the school committee approved at a hearing Thursday, an increase of $847,761 or 3.16 percent, while Chatham's share will be 24.89 percent, a decrease of $272,845 or 3.07 percent. This is the third year in a row Harwich's share of the budget has increased and Chatham's has dropped, Carpenter said, and the trend is likely to continue as the number of Chatham students declines.

Having each town pay the cost of its own elementary school would shift about $500,000 from Harwich to Chatham. Harwich's increase next year would be $340,000, while Chatham's share of the budget would go up $234,000, Carpenter said.

To do that, the operating cost assessment section of the regional agreement needs to be changed. Carpenter presented draft language drawn up by the district's attorney for an alternate assessment method requiring each town to fund its own elementary school. It requires approval by both town's select boards, town meetings, the school committee and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Carpenter said the earliest it would likely be ready to go to voters would be fall special town meetings. At May annual meetings, the towns would have to adopt the budget under the existing formula, and if the regional agreement change is approved in the fall, voters would then adopt an alternative budget following the new formula.

The language also requires that the alternative funding method be approved annually. Officials from both towns weren't happy with that, and asked Carpenter what would happen if it was turned down by one town. He said in that case the language defaults to the original funding assessment.

The assessment change would address the immediate fiscal inequity, but would do nothing to address the issue of the future of the two elementary schools. Harwich officials, nonetheless, clearly favored going forward with the change to gain some financial relief from the continued school budget increases the town has had to shoulder. Harwich isn't in a position to continue carrying the financial burden, said Harwich School Committee member Terry Russell.

“This number has gotten so high I can't justify going before our select board and saying we're doing this because it's a good neighbor policy,” he said. Howell agreed, saying the current trajectory is “untenable.” If voters had known this would be the case a decade ago when the school merger was approved, it might not have passed, he said.

“Our voters are getting tired of paying too much money,” said Harwich Selectman Michael MacAskill. “They're getting dangerously close to not voting for it.”

The Chatham Select Board recently agreed to put funds to address the inequity on the upcoming town meeting warrant, but members said there needs to be a discussion among residents about the situation. While parents clearly support retaining the town's elementary school, they are a minority of residents and the general public has yet to express an opinion, they said.

The proposed change to the funding assessment is a “Band-Aid,” said Chatham School Committee member Nancy Scott. “We're going to have to convince our taxpayers and our voters what is best for the school district as a whole and how we're going to be good partners with each other to do what's best for the district as a whole.”

Next year's additional $234,000 isn't a lot of money, said Chatham Selectman Peter Cocolis. “Nobody wants to pay more money, but we haven't been paying it over a long period of time,” he said.

Chatham School Committee member Joseph Auciello said he's already been told by constituents that if the town takes on additional school funding, he won't be re-elected. While he said he feels funding public education is an obligation to the next generation, Chatham has to hear from the majority of residents who don't have kids in the school system.

Residents have to be shown that officials are working on the longer-term elementary education issue, said Chatham Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. A recent survey presented several options, including closing CES and having all students attend HES – which could absorb the population in a year or so – sending some Harwich students to CES and creating upper and lower elementary schools. Chatham parents favor retaining individual elementary schools, while Harwich parents preferred one elementary school. There's a middle ground, Carpenter said, “but our parents aren't there yet.”

Although Chatham is working to address some of the issues at the core of the loss of young people, such as affordable and attainable housing, those are long-term fixes and remain largely out of the hands of school officials, said Russell. The committee has committed to developing a long-term plan to maintain quality elementary education, said Chair Tina Games; the March 4 forum is the first effort to gain input from the community on the issue. The session will be held on Zoom from 6:30 to 8 p.m.; a link to participate is on the school department's website, www.monomoy.edu.

The situation “begs further input from parents and community members” before significant action is taken, said Dykens. Both elementary schools need to retain viable programs, and having one class per grade, as is predicted for CES, won't work. “It gets too small,” Dykens said. The key is to “get more fannies in seats,” he said.

“We've got a lot of work to do on this one,” Dykens said.

“A lot is at stake here,” said Russell. The district has worked well, saving both towns money and creating a quality educational program, and this issue shouldn't stand in the way of that relationship continuing. But, he said, “parity is needed.”

Harwich Chairman of Selectmen Larry Ballantine agreed to place the issue on the board's next agenda, and Chatham Select Board Chair Shareen Davis said a separate meeting will be scheduled for her board to discuss the topic and hear from the public. The town continues to appreciate its relationship with Harwich, she added.

“We're all here for the best for our children and our towns,” she said.