Selectmen, School Committee Wrestle Over Potential School Shuffle

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District

Chatham and Harwich selectmen attended a special session of the Monomoy School Committee last week to talk about potential changes to the regional school agreement. MRSD-TV PHOTO

HARWICH Without really diving into the central issue of whether Monomoy’s two elementary schools should be combined or reconfigured to accommodate shifting enrollment, selectmen and the school committee last week debated who should be able to make that decision.

Facing the potential for overcrowded classrooms at Harwich Elementary School and a relative shortage of students at Chatham elementary, the regional school district is considering plans that would require some Harwich youngsters to attend classes in Chatham. Alternately, the schools might be reconfigured so that Harwich Elementary is used by children in pre-kindergarten through grade two from both towns, with grades three and four at Chatham Elementary.

But in a joint meeting of the school committee and selectmen from both towns last Thursday, officials wrestled with whether such a reconfiguration should be approved by selectmen, school committee members, town meetings, or some combination of the three.

The school committee last week circulated a proposed change to the regional school agreement that reads, “The Regional District School Committee, as it determines to be in the best interest of the District’s students, may assign students to elementary schools based on factors including, but not limited to, town of residence, geographic proximity to a school (i.e., districting), grade configuration, curricular structure, student population and the temporary or permanent unavailability of one or more buildings, in whole or in part, for its intended purpose due to circumstances such as natural disaster, failure of systems or other similar circumstances.”

Like any change to the regional agreement, the amendment would require approval by town meeting voters in both towns.

Harwich Selectman Don Howell said that language leaves the decision about any school reconfiguration up to the school committee.

“The citizens don’t get to opine on any change in the agreement,” he said. Fellow Harwich board member Larry Ballantine agreed, saying the language represents a fundamental change in the regional agreement, which currently requires the district to operate an elementary school in each town.

“This opens that up so you folks can do whatever you want,” he said.

School Committee Chairman Nancy Scott said the school board has already solicited input from parents and teachers on the school reconfiguration, in the form of a survey and public forums.

“It’s looking at [the reconfiguration] as an option for the school committee to wrestle with, and look at and get input,” she said. “We’re elected officials.”

School committee member Terry Russell said his board’s responsibility is to ensure parity between the regional district’s two towns when it comes to the classroom experience – both from students’ and teachers’ perspectives. Teachers in both school buildings are paid on the same scale, and it wouldn’t be fair to have one group teaching classes of 10 children while others have 18 or 20 kids.

Russell said he knows that Chatham Elementary has a reputation for having small class sizes, and hopefully that can continue, “but not at the expense of the youngsters at Harwich Elementary.”

The district has always allowed Harwich families to send their youngsters to Chatham Elementary if they prefer, and this year began actively recruiting them with the goal of equalizing class sizes. Eight families were interested, but to keep class sizes in Chatham manageable without adding another section, only three of those Harwich children could be accepted.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said voluntary intra-district school choice is not likely to solve the problem in future years, when demographic projections call for roughly stable enrollment in Harwich and a slight decline over time in Chatham.

Chatham Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, one of the architects of the regional school district, said the original deal was that each town would have its own elementary school, but “times change.” Still, if overcrowding is a problem in Harwich, it would seem that more families would choose to send youngsters to Chatham Elementary, he said.

But with regard to who should decide on how to structure the elementary schools, Dykens said he believes the matter is the purview of the school committee. Citizens who take issue with the language in the regional agreement can either wait for the next-scheduled five-year revision, or petition to bring the agreement to town meeting more quickly, he said. “It’s not like it’s etched in stone,” Dykens said.

School committee member Sharon Stout said a simpler solution would be for the district to fund an additional school bus to transport any willing Harwich students to Chatham Elementary, a service that is not currently provided. Stout said she is uncomfortable with any reconfiguration plan that forces students to attend classes out of their hometown.

“We’re disregarding the promise we made to them,” she said.

But Russell disagreed, saying the school committee has a responsibility to respond to potential problems.

“We’re doing the work that we’re elected to do,” he said. Maintaining equality between the district’s two elementary schools is paramount, Russell noted.

“I don’t want a teacher revolution, and I don’t want a parent revolution. I just want a resolution,” he said.

Another portion of the regional agreement may require substantive revisions, Carpenter noted. Currently, each town retains ownership of its elementary school, leasing it to the regional district. But depending on how the regional agreement is applied, projects like roof repairs might be subject to different cost-sharing formulas. Different interpretations could lead to “gamesmanship” between the towns when such projects arise, the superintendent said.

The school committee will continue to debate proposed changes to the regional agreement, with the goal of presenting selectmen with a final draft early next year, in time for the changes to be included on the towns’ spring annual town meeting warrants.