It's time for Chatham and Harwich to join Orleans and other Lower Cape towns and support young families by paying for universal pre-school education.
Although this was a recommendation of the Chatham 365 Task Force two years ago, the select board balked at providing full funding to subsidize pre-school costs for Chatham youngsters. They opted instead to increase funding of the town's childcare voucher program. This is a worthy and necessary program, providing needs-based subsidies for childcare for kids from birth to 13 ranging from $100 to $1,500. But this is no longer enough. The cost of both childcare and pre-school has risen significantly, and relieving young families of that burden would allow them to devote more resources to other needs, such as housing. Last week Orleans residents approved a $495,000 Proposition 2½ override that will cover the cost of pre-school for all of the town's 3- and 4-year-olds. Chatham and Harwich need to do the same.
For Harwich, this may be a difficult choice, since the town has more youngsters and has battled budget issues over the past few years. But it will likely be saving $600,000 or more next year if changes to the regional school agreement shift costs for elementary schools to Chatham and Harwich individually. What better way to use this savings than devote it the pre-school education cost of young families?
There's really no excuse for Chatham. Its cost will probably be similar to, if not less, than the amount appropriated in Orleans. Putting the cost on the tax rate, as Orleans did through an override so that the funding will continue annually, would add about six cents to the tax rate. Right now Chatham is sitting on a big pot of money: more than $8 million in free cash, including a $2.2 million payment from Harwich as part of the inter-municipal agreement for use of the Chatham wastewater facility. This money can be used to offset other budget items and thus negate the tax impact of the pre-school funds. Even if the cost is put directly on the tax rate, instituting universal pre-school support is the right thing to do, and we urge the town manager, select board and finance committee to give it serious consideration in upcoming budget deliberations.