Committee Shelves Controversial Change To Regional School Agreement

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District

Chatham Elementary School.  FILE PHOTO

HARWICH The Monomoy Regional School Committee has decided not to pursue a controversial plan which would have allowed future realignment of the elementary school grades without the need to bring the plan to town meeting voters.

The committee made its decision about two weeks after Chatham selectmen rejected the proposed change to the regional school agreement. Under that proposal, once the regional agreement was amended – which requires a town meeting vote – elementary school grade realignments could have been made by the school committee and affirmed by selectmen in both towns without a need for further town meeting action.

The school committee favored the change in the regional agreement to allow it to act quickly to respond to future enrollment changes. The number of students in Chatham elementary is declining, and Harwich numbers are steady or increasing. Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter has warned that if the trend continues, the disparate class sizes will cause an educational inequality between the two schools.

School committee member Terry Russell said, given the position of the Chatham selectmen, it’s clear that the warning issued by school officials isn’t being well received.

“It kind of reminds me historically of the ride of Paul Revere,” when not everyone in the countryside heeded the warning of the impending invasion. “It’s going to take several more months and years of looking at this, and hopefully it all balances out and the British aren’t coming,” Russell said.

If the imbalance does become a problem, however, the district would likely seek to send some Harwich elementary students to Chatham to attend classes, possibly by redistricting some neighborhoods in East Harwich into the Chatham Elementary area. Another possibility would be to configure Harwich Elementary as a school for children in the youngest elementary grades from both towns, with Chatham Elementary receiving kids in the higher grades.

Committee member Stephen Davol said such changes take time to implement, and adding town meeting approval to the process could further delay the process.

Colleague Jackie Zibrat-Long agreed. While she acknowledged the sentiments of Chatham selectmen, “I think that body doesn’t speak for everyone in the community,” she said. It seemed like the Chatham selectmen’s vote was a referendum on grade alignment, rather than on amending the regional agreement.

“That vote isn’t necessarily to make a change. It’s just to allow the flexibility in the event, down the line, so that we don’t have to – in an emergent situation, as I would call it, when all of a sudden you have to shift all the schools around – take two years to change a regional agreement,” Zibrat-Long said.

Those who oppose the realignment of the elementary grades argue that, when the Monomoy district was created, there was a pledge that each community would retain its own elementary school. That provision is part of the regional agreement.

Committee Chairman Nancy Scott said the school committee was correct in raising a red flag over the potential problem.

“People are getting very passionate about the fact that, this is what we were promised, this is what we need, leave it alone, don’t change anything. And we’re saying the same thing: right now, nothing needs to be changed,” Scott said. If the imbalance becomes a problem in future years, there will be hard enrollment data to back up the need for a change. But when it comes to changing the regional agreement for this town meeting, “I think we should just leave the elementary school portion alone, and kind of let the public catch up with us,” she said.

Carpenter agreed that, should a problem materialize, it will be easier to demonstrate in the next few years. Now, Chatham has one empty kindergarten classroom. Should the trend continue in the next three years, there will be empty classrooms in several grades. But predicting future enrollment trends remains elusive, the superintendent said. He has worked closely with the town clerks in both towns to track births and the corresponding school enrollments several years later.

“There’s basically no rhyme or reason” between birth statistics and the number of students who enroll for kindergarten years later, he said. It appears that families with young children are often transient, and may leave the district before those children are school-aged.

Carpenter said he hears from many parents that they value small class sizes like those in Chatham Elementary.

“I get it. I understand it,” he said. But when a cohort of students in one grade level is too small, it limits social and educational opportunities, Carpenter said.

While the school committee voted not to recommend changing the part of the regional agreement related to elementary enrollment, it is going ahead with a number of minor, non-controversial changes for voters to consider at town meeting. The committee will present that revised agreement to selectmen in both towns for inclusion on the spring annual town meeting warrants in the weeks ahead.