School Agreement Change Will Wait For Spring Town Meeting

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District , Municipal Finance

Monomoy Schools.

To Address Elementary School Funding Disparity

Voters will likely have to wait until the spring to consider a change to the Monomoy Regional School agreement designed to boost financial equity between Chatham and Harwich. But school officials say the fiscal impact of delaying the vote from a fall special town meeting to the May annual town meeting comes as no big surprise.

On Monday, the Harwich board of selectmen called a special town meeting for Oct. 18 to allow voters to consider several articles, including funding for wastewater projects (see related story). In Chatham, where the select board is looking for speedy action on a plan to boost the capacity of the water system, officials are seeking to hold a special town meeting in October. They will choose a date at their Sept. 7 meeting. But neither community’s special town meeting is expected to include the fiscal changes to the regional school agreement.

On Tuesday, Monomoy Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said he was discussing a potential article with Harwich Town Clerk Anita Doucette, and asked her opinion about one section of the regional agreement that specifies that amendments need majority approval “by each member town at an annual town meeting.” Doucette agreed that the language appears to preclude any action at a special town meeting.

“I inquired with the district’s counsel if 'annual' was the operative word,” Carpenter said. The school’s attorney opined that any change to the regional agreement would, in fact, need to wait for the towns’ annual legislative session in May.

The Monomoy Regional School Committee recently endorsed a new funding formula that would see Chatham and Harwich voters paying separately for their towns’ respective elementary schools. The goal of the change is more financial equity; while Harwich pays roughly three-quarters of the regional school budget, dwindling enrollment at Chatham Elementary has driven up the school’s per-pupil cost, disproportionately burdening Harwich taxpayers.

If the change to the regional agreement passes muster with voters and is approved by the state education commissioner, it would provide Harwich with around $600,000 in fiscal relief for the following budget. At the last school committee meeting, some expressed concern that without that relief, Harwich would be seeking school budget cuts.

But the Harwich selectmen had little to say about the delay this week. Board member Larry Ballantine said he did not want the process to drag on for another year. Town Administrator Joseph Powers said it’s not clear whether passage of the amendment at the spring town meeting would provide enough time for Harwich taxpayers to see fiscal relief in the fiscal 2022 budget.

“We’d have a tremendous amount of work to do to put it in place by July 1, 2022,” he said.

“There’s a general concern that the longer we stretch this out, the longer it will take – presuming it passes – for Harwich to receive fiscal equity,” Carpenter said Tuesday. If the change isn’t approved in time for the next budget, Harwich selectmen would need to fund their school assessment at the level required by the current funding formula, or else seek to reduce their assessment by around $600,000. Those budget cuts would affect both towns, Carpenter said.

“We would end up cutting about $800,000, because when we reduce Harwich’s assessment, we end up reducing Chatham’s assessment by a proportional amount,” he said.

While there were hopes that Harwich would see savings more quickly, there was never any certainty that it could be done in time for the FY22 budget, the superintendent said. Both town meetings need to approve the measure before the state signs off on it, “and all of that has to happen at a time before both towns set their tax rates and send out tax bills,” he said. “We were up against the wall anyway, if we could’ve done it in a special town meeting.”

William F. Galvin contributed to this story.