Monomoy School Committee Mulls Budget Strategy

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District , Municipal Finance

Monomoy schools.  FILE PHOTO

When it comes to bringing the next Monomoy school budget to voters, district and town officials came prepared with sharp pencils, but they probably wish they had a crystal ball.

They’ve prepared a $42,801,403 spending plan for fiscal 2023, and two formulas for the town’s school assessment: one using the current terms of the regional agreement, and another with each town paying for its own elementary school. It remains to be seen whether voters will approve that formula change or the budget itself.

The regional school committee held a community forum on the budget, and Superintendent Scott Carpenter said of the 20 or so people in attendance, about half were on the school committee or staff. With very little public input so far on the spending plan, school committee members meeting on Feb. 3 wondered what the response from voters will be.

The budget represents a 2.98 percent increase over the current school spending plan, though it doesn’t seek money for any new programs. Under the current formula, Chatham’s assessment would increase by 2.9 percent, and Harwich’s share would increase by 2.5 percent. If voters approve the change to the regional agreement that has each town pay for its own elementary school, Harwich would see their assessment decrease slightly, while Chatham’s share would jump 10.8 percent.

Terry Russell, school committee member from Harwich, predicted that voters in his town would approve of the new funding formula, which is designed to improve equity between the two towns. Enrollment in Chatham is declining faster than in Harwich, which has caused the per-pupil cost at Chatham Elementary to jump. Russell said he believes the select boards and finance committees from the two towns should meet and come to consensus in support of the plan as a prelude to getting voters on board.

“I think that’s the best way to try to electrify the Chatham folks that this is the best way for all of us to go,” he said.

Speaking to the Chatham select board last week, Carpenter said that while Chatham would pay around $700,000 more this year under the alternate assessment, “that big increase, it’s a one-year thing.” Likewise, Harwich’s assessment would decline slightly this year, but would go back to ordinary increases next year once each town is paying its own way for elementary schools. He made the case that the alternate assessment is the best approach for ensuring that both towns have sustainable elementary schools in their towns, but that’s not the only benefit for Chatham families, he said.

In the past, “it’s really been the Harwich budget, and what Harwich has been able to go and pay toward the school, that has been the limiting factor in terms of what sorts of programs we can offer,” Carpenter said. With Harwich paying a fairer share, it will be easier each year for the district to propose “strong school budgets that benefit all children in both towns,” he said.

The alternate assessment is part of a package of changes to the regional school agreement that voters will consider at spring town meetings. Another of the amendments changes how the school committee approves each year’s budget. Currently, the regional agreement stipulates that a budget needs a majority vote of the school committee to pass, with at least one member from each town voting to support it. Because it is more restrictive than state law, that last proviso must be removed, state education officials ruled. Instead, the regional agreement would change to require at least one vote from each town when the spending plan is reported out of the budget subcommittee, Carpenter said. That will provide the same protection for Chatham, which has less voting power on the school board, he said.

Chatham select board member Dean Nicastro said he would like town counsel to opine on that particular change to the regional agreement. But aside from that issue, “I think this makes sense,” he said. While the change to the assessment formula will mean that Chatham pays more than it did before, “we want to keep our elementary school operational, so we’re going to have to make some additional sacrifices,” he said.

Board member Shareen Davis agreed, and said she believes that voters also favor Chatham paying for its own elementary school.

“We’ll find out at town meeting if that is the case,” she said.

Once the regional agreement is decided, voters can focus on the FY23 budget itself. School committee member Tina Games of Harwich said their support is not to be taken for granted.

“The elephant in the room is the potential that Harwich loves – why would they not? – the revised assessment [but] they could say no to the regular budget,” she said.