Monomoy Schools Float $46.5M Budget Harwich Assessment up 4.9%; Chatham, 6.2%

by Alan Pollock

Monomoy Regional Schools Superintendent Scott Carpenter visited the select boards in Chatham and Harwich last week to unveil the draft school spending plan for fiscal 2025. At $46,511,471, the budget is up more than $2 million, or 4.8 percent, from the current year’s figure.

“I think it’s a budget we can be proud of,” he told the Harwich board. The spending plan accounts for shrinking enrollment, rising costs and the end of federal COVID grants while keeping class sizes stable and preserving important programs, Carpenter said.

Personnel-related expenses are driving the cost increase, chiefly in the area of benefits, Business Manager Michael MacMillan said. “The most significant increase is health insurance,” he said. Most of the district’’s health insurance plans are up 8 percent, contributing to an increase of nearly $450,000 in benefits expenses. Salary and wage costs are also up, both for teachers, guidance and other staff.

“That’s all driven by salary negotiations” which are currently underway, MacMillan said. Inflation has affected the district both in the increased costs it pays for things it buys, and indirectly by increasing the cost of living for employees, who need to make more in order to remain on Cape Cod.

“It’s more challenging to live here on the Cape. Housing’s a challenge, and we’ve got to make sure that our teachers, as well as our families, can afford here,” Carpenter said.

This year sees the end of ESSER, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, which contributed about $575,000 to the district during the pandemic, paying for nine positions.

“The positions which were funded by federal grants for COVID, those positions are now...coming into the district general fund,” MacMillan said.

Building maintenance expenses are also up, with a $219,000 increase in building repairs and upgrades.

“Ten, 11 years ago, we had a brand new high school,” Carpenter said. Now, some components — chiefly parts of the building’s sophisticated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system — are in need of work. The replacement of the middle school roof is also looming, and the district is applying for a $150,000 state grant to help plan the job; it will also seek a grant to help with the actual work, “but we’ve got a ways to go before we get there,” MacMillan said. With the replacement of the roof and the siding and trim — a $2.5 million project that will be funded through borrowing, to be authorized through separate town meeting articles — the middle school will be in good shape, Carpenter said. “It’s going to serve both towns for years to come, quite well,” he said.

The capital budget includes $40,000 for new carpeting at Chatham Elementary School. The town is responsible for that cost, which is folded into the town’s side of the budget.

Each year, the district pays a fee to surrounding districts when Harwich or Chatham residents choose to have their students attend classes in an outside district through School Choice, and that outflow is down about $260,000 in the fiscal 25 draft budget.

“The good news story that we have is, the number of students doing that has gone down significantly in the last few years, so that’s reducing our costs,” MacMillan said. “We’re keeping students in the district.” This year, 77 students are choicing out of Monomoy, compared to 223 in fiscal 2018.

“That’s saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for both towns,” Carpenter told the Chatham Select Board.

Many students from surrounding towns also opt in to the Monomoy district through School Choice, though space remains limited. There is some capacity in the elementary schools and a bit in the middle school, but the high school is essentially at capacity, Carpenter said.

“We’ve got plenty of applications from Dennis, Yarmouth, Brewster, that could fill classrooms,” he said. “But at $5,000 a pop, it wouldn’t pay for the staffing” to maintain the optimal class size of roughly 18 students, he said.

Because the school assessments are based on a split of the district’s foundation enrollment from each town, Harwich pays roughly three-quarters of the budget, with Chatham picking up the rest. Harwich’s school assessment in the draft spending plan is $29,876,982, an increase of 4.9 percent, while Chatham’s share is $10,308,940, up 6.2 percent. The budget request does not become final until the school committee votes on it, which is expected to happen on March 14.

Generally speaking, enrollment is declining about equally in both Chatham and Harwich, and the budget has adjusted to accommodate that shrinkage, Carpenter said.

“Has the school done any strategic planning, considering some of the larger scale housing units they’re talking about building in Harwich Chatham?” Harwich select board member Michael MacAskill asked.

The district would adapt to those increases, which would likely come with several years’ warning, Carpenter said. “If it were to come online tomorrow, there’s the capacity at the elementary and middle school,” and some space in the high school would be available in the years ahead. MacAskill noted that the Dennis-Yarmouth district has been challenged by the influx of migrants living in temporary housing in Yarmouth. Carpenter said the district has felt no such pressure so far.

“But again, we’re one school district away from where the impact has been felt,” he said. Monomoy has the flexibility to accommodate an influx of new housing units or “if suddenly we find migrants are sent to some closed hotel.”

An analysis of other districts in the state shows that Monomoy’s per-pupil spending was higher than the state average at $21,056 in fiscal 2022, but lower than the Nauset schools, which paid $24,341 to educate each student that year. Of the 398 districts that reported figures in fiscal 2022, Monomoy was ranked 114th in per-pupil expenditures.

The district is also asking the towns for cable access fund to help pay for a new press box and video equipment at the high school athletic field. A major goal of having the press box is to be able to film and broadcast Monomoy sports games, MacMillan said, which will require new equipment. The total $179,557 cost would be split between the two towns, with Harwich paying $137,954 and Chatham contributing $41,603.