Tolley Hopes To Bring Clarity And Focus To School Issues

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Politics , Monomoy Regional School District

Danielle Tolley. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – Danielle Tolley isn't worried that Chatham Elementary School will close. She's more interested in the way the conversation around the school's future developed, how it snowballed from concern over low enrollment to demands that the town increase its share of the Monomoy Regional School District budget.

“It feels like something is on fire, when it clearly isn't,” she said.

It's important to get to the root of the problem, she said, which is one of the main reasons she decided to run for a seat on the regional school committee. That extends to the entire school district, not just Chatham Elementary.

“It's really about serving to connect the dots with whatever's happening with the Monomoy Regional School District and the bigger vision Chatham holds for itself, being a community where people can live and work and thrive year-round,” she said.

As a member of the Chatham 365 Task Force, Tolley said she saw those dots close up, how housing, school enrollment and many other issues are interconnected. The vision of Chatham as a vibrant year-round community needs to be part of the school district conversation; in fact, it's core to that vision, she said.

“I know there's momentum around Chatham's efforts to address some of the really complex, complicated issues we face,” she said, and that momentum “has to be carried over to the school committee.”

As of early this week, Tolley was the only candidate for the single three-year school committee term on the June 17 annual election ballot, one of four Chatham representatives on the panel. As of Tuesday, incumbent Jo-Anne Sheehan had not replied to emails asking if she would seek another term.

The conversation around Chatham Elementary School's declining enrollment and what to do about it seemed to escalate this fall and winter, even though the trend has been evident since before regionalization a decade ago and was therefore no surprise, Tolley said. She lays that at the feet of the school administration; communication wasn't thoughtful and intentional, but dropped like a bomb in the middle of the pandemic. It raised a red flag, and the more she learned about it, the more she wanted to be part of the conversation.

The issue, it turns out, isn't about small class size, quality of education or poor experiences for students; at its heart it's a budget issue, she said, with Harwich wanting Chatham to address the inequity between the cost of running Harwich and Chatham elementary schools.

“It's really a budget issue and there are many ways we can solve that budget issue,” she said.

Originally from Ohio, Tolley met her husband, Brett, a Chatham native, at Elon University. She came to the Cape to work as a nanny for his nieces. After college, the couple spent a dozen years in New York City, where she worked for nonprofit organizations, including running a media literacy program for teenage girls. She also wrote and performed comedy and started a small production company, spending most summers in Chatham. She helped open Pilgrim's Landing and Chatham Under Glass in 2013, and split her time between Chatham and New York until 2016, when Pilgrim's Landing transitioned to a nonprofit and she and Brett moved here full time. She currently works as development coordinator for both the North American Marine Alliance and the National Family Farm Coalition. The couple has two children, Leo, three and a half, and Zoe, eight months.

The Tolleys were able to buy a home in Chatham but only because they received a buyout from their apartment in Brooklyn, which provided a down payment. For most of her friends here, the only way to buy a home is if they inherit money or get some sort of a windfall. “It's not because they don't work hard, but it's nearly impossible to save,” she said.

Working with nonprofits and running a business have given Tolley a familiarity with budgets; she also managed grants for the Chatham Harvesters Cooperative, so she is familiar with the way government works.

Tolley said she is passionate about the deeper learning process that has been implemented at Chatham Elementary School and would like to see it expanded to the rest of the district. She'd also like to explore looking at the weighted voting system whereby Chatham members of the school committee have half a vote while Harwich members have a full vote, especially if Chatham ends up increasing its contribution to the school budget.

“I'm not sure what the answer is, but it's worth exploring,” she said.

Despite being a working mom with two small children, Tolley said she willing to put in the time necessary to serve on the school committee. She said it's important to her to do the work to make sure her kids have good schools to attend.

“Every day we're figuring out new ways to juggle our lives and make it work,” she said. “This will just be another thing to know that I'm committing my time to. And this is clearly a priority.”

Today (Thursday, April 29) is the final day for candidates to return signed nomination papers. As of Tuesday, incumbent Select Board members Dean Nicastro and Cory Metters had returned nomination papers, as did challenger Tom Wilson. Moderator William Litchfield is seeking another term, as is housing authority member Shirley L. Smith.

The annual town election will be held on June 17 this year, with polls at the community center open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Early voting will be available by mail, according to Town Clerk Julie Smith.