Upper/Lower Elementary School Idea Not Popular With Parents

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Elementary School. FILE PHOTO

The Monomoy Regional School District administrator's recommendation to create upper and lower elementary schools at Chatham and Harwich elementary schools does not sit well with many of the district's parents, judging from feedback at a community forum held by the school committee last week.

“I don't think this will be good for either our children or our community,” said Meara Baldwin, a Chatham resident with two children in Chatham Elementary School. “I strongly feel that the upper/lower elementary school proposal is basically putting nails in the coffin for both Chatham and Harwich, in many ways.”

“This feels like a recommendation for a budget solution,” said parent Brett Tolley.

With enrollment declining throughout the district, school officials have been looking for a way to keep both elementary schools open while addressing a widening budget disparity that has Harwich paying a larger share of overall school costs as Chatham's enrollment erodes. With fewer students, the cost to educate a pupil at Chatham Elementary is about $5,000 more than in Harwich, yet, because of the funding formula in the regional agreement between the two towns, Harwich pays three-quarters of those costs. As enrollment declines and costs escalate, Harwich's share increases while Chatham's drops.

Administrators made the recommendation to the school committee April 29, saying that 75 percent of the staff at both elementary schools support the upper/lower model, which would see kindergarten through grade two students attending Harwich Elementary School and third and fourth graders attending the Chatham school. Last Thursday's virtual forum was held to get public input on the best configurations of the district's elementary school.

Some in Chatham fear the ultimate goal of the administration's recommendation is to consolidate all elementary grades in Harwich, but School Committee Chair Tina Games said that's not the case. Chatham officials have vowed to retain the elementary school, and any change to the configuration would require amending the regional agreement, which requires approval by the school committee, and both towns' select boards and town meetings.

The upper/lower proposal will change Chatham Elementary into an “entirely different school,” said Heather Deveau. “To say it's not closing the school – it is.”

Tolley said the recommendation should be rejected and that the school committee and administration should research and analyze the problems underlying the situation before coming to a conclusion. “It seems backwards” to make a recommendation first, he said. The issues all seem to come down to budgets rather than educational quality. The recommendation also created a lot of anxiety among parents, he said, as did Superintendent Scott Carpenter's suggestion that the district may need to look at building a central elementary school in the future, given the age of the Chatham and Harwich elementary school buildings.

“That was extremely alarming to us,” Tolley said.

Carpenter said he was pointing out the need to look at demographic trends. At some point in the near future the elementary population of both towns will fit under one roof, and while the current buildings are in good condition, they are both more than 60 years old.

“This is not something that needs to happen soon, but I really think that we need to at least look at it off to the distant future,” he said.

“I think it surprised everybody how much our two towns have changed in terms of demographics and enrollment just in the last 10 years,” Carpenter said. The discussions happening now are an attempt to try to figure out what might happen in the next 10 years, so that the regional agreement doesn't have to be amended again.

Next year's projected kindergarten enrollment is almost twice the current year’s, with 28 Chatham residents signed up and three district choice students. With class size capped at 18, this will mean two kindergarten classes next fall, as opposed to this year's single class. If no other Chatham residents enroll, there will be space for six more choice students to bring both classes up to 18, according to Carpenter.

School officials had projected that Chatham elementary could have as few as 55 students by 2025, Tolley said, but given the projections for the fall, that figure seems inaccurate. He saw the higher enrollment as a “bright light” in the discussion.

Matthew Packard said he's seen more young people with strollers this year and in the past, which, like the kindergarten enrollment, might be a good sign for the future. “We might be at the absolute floor of Chatham elementary's enrollment problem,” he said.

Several people said they don't see Chatham contributing more to the district budget as an impediment to keeping Chatham Elementary School open in its current configuration. Carpenter said the upper/lower elementary recommendation was never meant to address the budget issue, since the enrollment numbers from both towns would not change.

Danielle Tolley said the district's strategic plan makes no mention of an upper/lower elementary configuration. Since it is the district's guiding document, it should be re-examined in light of the current issues.

“The strategic plan is what should be driving everything that we're talking about in the school district,” said Tolley. “This conversation is really coming out of left field. And that's because I think it is coming as a result of a budget issue.”

Requiring students to switch school buildings in the middle of the elementary years will impact relationships kids make not only with teachers, but with support staff such as lunch ladies and janitors, said Lindsey Bierwirth. She said many parents don't feel as if the administration is hearing them.

“We're all in this together. We all need to have a voice. I'm tired of voices not being heard,” she said.

Bri Schreiner said the upper/lower configuration could split up siblings and may cause logistics problems with parents trying to pick up their children at two different schools.

Several people commented on the need to have elementary schools in both towns to maintain the character of the community.

“If you degrade what we currently have, the community's going to degrade with it,” said Adam Baldwin.