While the rest of the nation focused on the angst emerging from Washington, D.C., town officials in Dennis and Yarmouth were largely out of the spotlight mending fences and looking forward. The two towns, which have frequently come to a donnybrook over the regional school district that they share, have been working diligently in recent months to rediscover that there is more that binds them together than might tear them apart.
In many ways, the two boards of selectmen seem to be taking a page from the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School Committee, which has been doing things a little differently over the past few months. For example, in July the committee decided to take the unusual step of bypassing town meetings in both towns when it comes time to fund a new $109 million regional school for grades 4 through 7. Instead, school officials will place the issue directly before voters on Dec. 4 in the form of a districtwide vote, much in the same manner as leaders at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School did last year, when they successfully appealed to voters from that district’s 12 sending towns to support a new $128 million building.
At the time of its vote, D-Y Regional School Committee Chairwoman Jeni Landers noted: “Just because you’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it. Sometimes change can be really good.”
Landers’ statement could perhaps be a mantra for this School Committee, which seems ready to put aside the provincial bickering that has dominated the sometimes-tenuous relationship between the two towns and replace it with a more optimistic, innovative spirit that looks toward getting things done. The committee acknowledged that occasionally acrimonious past when it announced plans in August to update the 41-year-old regional agreement that serves as the framework for the district. As with its July declaration, the move was somewhat revolutionary, as the committee has largely stayed on the sidelines while leaders from Dennis and Yarmouth repeatedly came to loggerheads over questions of funding.
That agreement is long overdue for a review. When penned in 1977, school officials could not have foreseen the impact school choice, charter schools, or a new Catholic high school might have on the way the district funded itself. They likely also could not have predicted the almost nonstop arguing between town officials in Dennis and Yarmouth, which has routinely bubbled up like some noxious swamp gas.
Now the selectmen from both towns seem ready to follow the School Committee’s lead. After a year punctuated by charges and countercharges, the two boards reached a tentative agreement at the end of September that could finally put to rest many of the outstanding issues that have dogged the regional agreement for years.
One of those issues – the funding formula – was last modified in 2006 at the insistence of Yarmouth officials. Since then, Yarmouth officials have maintained that the approach, which divides school operating costs based on enrollment numbers, unfairly penalizes Yarmouth’s taxpayers. The new agreement would equally divide the district’s $2.9 million in administrative costs, based on the premise that both towns would need to pay an administrative team were they to go it alone.
Furthermore, Dennis officials agreed to partially reimburse Yarmouth for a $750,000 feasibility study the School Committee conducted concerning the new grades 4-7 school. The agreement also revisits how to count students who live in either Dennis or Yarmouth, but who either attend a charter school or who enroll in an out-of-district school.
Although several outstanding issues remain – including how to divide costs for the new school, should voters approve the new building – these steps represent a significant, positive spirit of compromise, especially considering that it was not long ago that the two boards had essentially stopped talking to one another. And at a time when the news seems to be filled with the division du jour, such willingness to collaborate is worth celebrating.