Change Proposed To School Funding Formula

By: Tim Wood

Harwich Elementary School. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO 

Each Town Would Pay For Its Own Elementary School

The Monomoy Regional School District is proposing changes to the regional school agreement that officials hope will address the growing cost disparity between the district's two elementary schools.

The change to the agreement's funding formula would require that Harwich and Chatham each pay the entire operating cost of its own elementary school. If approved, Harwich would save about $600,000 annually, and that amount would be added to Chatham's school contribution, said Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter.

No change is planned in the regional agreement requirement that each town maintain its own elementary school, he said. Realigning the grades at the two schools – dividing them into upper and lower grades – was one of the options discussed to alleviate the financial disparity. That led some in Chatham to raise concerns about the town losing a stand-alone elementary school.

“The school committee is not suggesting to change the configuration,” Carpenter said.

With a shrinking population at Chatham Elementary School, Harwich is essentially underwriting the higher cost of educating Chatham students under the existing funding formula, which apportions each town's school funding obligation based on enrollment. This year Harwich is responsible for 75 percent of the Monomoy school budget, with Chatham paying 25 percent. Because Chatham Elementary School has fewer students but similar fixed costs, its cost per pupil is about $5,000 higher than at Harwich Elementary School.

The change to the funding formula was included in a draft of a revised regional school agreement Carpenter presented to the school committee July 14. The majority of the changes update the original 2012 agreement and eliminate references to the transition from individual town districts to the Monomoy district; other changes are clarifications suggested by the state department of elementary and secondary education, according to Carpenter.

The school committee will continue discussing the changes and may vote on them at its Aug. 11 meeting, he said. If that happens, Carpenter will present the changes to the Harwich Board of Selectmen and the Chatham Select Board, with the goal of putting the revised agreement before fall special town meetings in both towns. If approved, the change could be in place for next year's budget.

There appears to be support in Chatham for the change. During meetings on the future of Chatham Elementary School this spring, a number of residents indicated strong support for retaining an elementary school, even if it costs taxpayers more. The select board also backed retaining the school, with members saying that was key to maintaining a vibrant, diverse community.

“I'm not totally against paying a little more for our school,” Select Board Chair Peter Cocolis said Tuesday.

The change would benefit Harwich and is in line with the selectmen's position, said Chairman Larry Ballantine. “That was our thinking from the beginning,” he said the idea of each town paying for its own school.

“Harwich is obviously in favor of this,” added Selectman Mary Anderson, the board's liaison to a working group that was looking at the regional agreement. “This looks like the best way to make things equitable.”

The funding formula changes were modeled after language in the Mount Greylock Regional School District regional agreement, which Carpenter said is similar to Monomoy in that each of its two member towns have stand-alone elementary schools. And as with Monomoy, one of the schools, the Lanesborough Elementary School, is significantly smaller than the other, the Williamstown Elementary School. The language in the Mount Greylock district agreement was approved by the state department of elementary and secondary education, which is important, Carpenter said, because the state agency must also approve changes to the Monomoy agreement. The school committee asked that the draft revisions be shared with the DESE now.

“We want to make sure that we're moving forward with something the department of education will support,” he said.

Chatham Elementary School currently has about 160 students, but is forecast to dip to as few as 100 students by 2025. Harwich Elementary School's student population is approximately 470. Chatham's growing housing costs are seen by many as a significant reason for the dwindling school population, and Cocolis said that makes efforts to build more affordable and attainable housing even more critical. He noted, however, that early kindergarten enrollment for the fall is up over last year, with projections for two classes instead of one, as was the case last year.

The funding formula change would also require that each town cover capital costs for its own elementary school. Currently, capital costs are shared under the same formula as the operating budget.

“So if one of the buildings needs a new roof, Harwich isn't paying for three-quarters of Chatham Elementary School's roof,” Carpenter said. Capital costs at the high school and middle school will continue to be subject to the existing shared funding formula.

Among the other changes in the draft revision of the regional agreement is a clarification requested by DESE regarding the weighted voted system used by the school committee, which was put in place due to the population disparity between the two towns. Harwich's four members have a full vote, while Chatham's four representatives have a half vote each. For a majority vote to succeeded, at least one member from each town must vote in the affirmative. But certain votes under state statutes, such as the district's budget, require a majority vote, and the agreement cannot make it conditional on one member from each side voting to approve. This is addressed in the revision by adding “unless otherwise required by law or regulation” to the section explaining the weighted voting system.

Copies of the draft revised regional agreement can be found on the school committee page of the district website, www.monomoy.edu, under school committee agendas.