Harwich Selectmen Prepared To Turn Down School Budget

By: William F. Galvin

The Harwich Town Seal was designed by local artist Charles D. Cahoon in 1896. It misrepresents the type of dwelling Wampanoag people lived in.

If Chatham Doesn't Take On Elementary Costs

HARWICH — As financial chasm between Chatham and Harwich in the Monomoy Regional School District budget increases, selectmen on Monday night agreed to send a strong message to their counterparts in Chatham that action is needed this year to address the “subsidy” Harwich is paying under the regional agreement.

Otherwise, selectmen made it clear they are prepared to vote against the MRSD budget.

At issue is the growing financial disparity that has Harwich paying an increasing percentage of the district budget as the student population in the Chatham Elementary School spirals downward.

Since the regional agreement was approved in 2012, the CES student population has dropped by 39 percent. The Harwich Elementary School population has had a drop as well of 12 percent, but the cost of educating students at CES is $5,000 more than the cost at HES. The cost differential will continue to rise as CES numbers are projected to fall. Presently there are 170 students in CES, and by 2025 the student population is projected to be 100. The difference in cost to educate a student at CES and HES is estimated to rise to $12,700 by 2025.

Harwich selectmen and Chatham Select Board members convened with the Monomoy Regional School Committee Feb. 10 in an effort to work through the assessment issues. The committee has scheduled a forum on March 4 to continue discussions, including looking at long-term solutions to the elementary school situation.

Monday selectmen pointed out Harwich has been paying a larger percentage of the school district costs over the past several years. Harwich’s contribution is now 75.11 percent and Chatham’s is 24.89 percent of the proposed $41 million budget.

“The chasm grows wider for the town of Harwich and the taxpayers. It’s a function of the assessment mechanism,” Town Administrator Joseph Powers said.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter is recommending that each town pay for its own elementary school as a short-term means of addressing the issue. That would mean a $507,000 savings for Harwich this year while driving up Chatham’s contribution by $234,000. But ultimately the operating cost assessment provisions in the regional agreement would have to be changed, requiring a number of approvals not likely to be implemented in time for May town meetings.

Selectman Michael MacAskill emphasized the need for a permanent fix as quickly as possible. MacAskill said he could not see Chatham approving additional funding in their town meeting year after year.

“There is a subsidy involved,” Selectman Donald Howell said. “Harwich is subsiding the luxury of one classroom per grade (at CES). That’s crazy. This problem is going to fester with the ever dwindling population and Chatham will become our obligation in the funding formula. I’m totally prepared to vote against the school budget unless something breaks.”

“I don’t begrudge Chatham if they want their own elementary school,” Howell said. “We’re not saying close the school. We’ll pay for our school and you pay for your school if you choose to keep it open. You bear your overhead costs.”

“I agree with Don and Michael, it’s a situation we can’t let go by this year,” Selectman Stephen Ford said. “I think it’s a good idea to give our sentiments to (the Chatham Select Board) that we’re not going to sit by on this. We want them to address this in a serious fashion.”

“I stand with Don on a no vote on the budget,” MacAskill said. “The hand has to be forced. The town of Harwich can’t afford to pay for Chatham Elementary School.”

Fixed costs such as insurance, building structure and maintenance and other expenses that are not geared to how many classrooms are operating will be magnified as the lower student population moves into the middle and high schools, Selectman Ed McManus said.

MacAskill said with the average home in Chatham selling for $1 million, there are not going to be any young families who can afford to live there and the school budget burden will continue to shift to Harwich.

“This budget is going to hurt us and Chatham has to step up,” Howell said.

Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said he was hoping for a motion that informs Chatham that Harwich is looking for financial support for the $507,000. He and Powers will work on a strong statement to send to their counterparts in Chatham. The board unanimously supported that action.

The March 4 session will be held on Zoom from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. A link to attend can be found at www.monomoy.edu.