There has been much talk in recent weeks about the dire consequences that K-12 students in Belmont’s public schools will face if voters fail to approve a request for a much-needed property tax increase on April 7th.
Less talked about but equally important to grasp are the cuts that have already happened in our public schools. These cuts were made gradually and (mostly) without comment in the last five to ten years, as our public schools have struggled to stay within “level service” funding that tries to run this year’s schools with last year’s budget. (Editor’s note: This editorial appeared in this week’s Belmont Citizen Herald. You can also find it on the BCH website. -Paul.)
What have we lost in the process? Let’s take a look!
We eliminated elementary school librarians.
Most public school districts have full- or part time, professional librarians to run their elementary school libraries. As recently as 6 years ago, Belmont was among them. No longer. Today, our elementary schools share part-time library aides, who work with parent volunteers. The proposed Available Revenue budget for the 2015-2016 academic year will eliminate even the aides, leaving elementary libraries run wholly by parent volunteers, greatly reducing programming.
We eliminated funding for elementary instrumental music.
Until recently (2010), all Belmont public school students could take instrumental music beginning in 3rd grade. That is now a fee-based program that requires parents to pay upwards of $250 for their children to take an instrument. In fact, our schools’ reliance on fees has increased dramatically, district wide.
We eliminated language instruction in grade 5.
According to most studies, starting foreign language instruction during the early elementary years is critical if children are to become competent in a foreign language. But we eliminated elementary foreign language instruction entirely when the District abandoned the 5th grade foreign language requirement to meet a constrained, level services budget in the 2012 school year. What did we replace it with? Study hall. In fact, today it is not uncommon for as many as 70 to 90 fifth grade students to have a study hall in the auditorium with one teacher at Chenery Middle School.
We stopped using substitute teachers at Belmont High.
Belmont High no longer hires short-term substitute teachers to head classes when the instructor is absent -and hasn’t for a number of years. This, because we lack the money to pay them. Today, teacher absences at Belmont High are de-facto free periods. The High School has resorted to putting benches in the hallways for the hoards of unoccupied students to sit on. According to data compiled by the District, there are days at Belmont High when between 600 and 800 students may have no class at all to report to.
We drastically cut funding for most classroom materials, including textbooks.
While it may be an exaggeration to say that Belmont doesn’t buy any textbooks out of its operating budget, it’s not much of an exaggeration. In the last ten years, it has been private funds provided by the Foundation for Belmont Education and the PTO/PTAs, that have bought textbooks and class materials used in classrooms.
We have sharply limited the number and type of courses students can take.
One of the most pernicious effects of “available revenue” and “level service” budgeting in the last 10 years has been the way it has winnowed the course offerings for students at the middle school and high school. Simply put: budget constraints prevent us from hiring the teachers we need to meet increased enrollment and student needs. An example? Belmont High School no longer offers electives in areas like speech, debate, creative writing, dance or theater. These are all courses that previous generations of BHS students benefitted from. At the middle school level, we no longer employ a dedicated technology teacher.
At the High School, scheduling now amounts to a series of “Faustian bargains” in which administrators weigh available budget against students’ interests and academic needs. An example: Belmont High School did not offer Advanced Placement French this year. This wasn’t because there was insufficient student interest. In fact, between 15 and 18 students wanted to take the class. But that is too small a number to justify the expenditure of a teacher in our cash-starved system. In other years, different courses have met the same fate: AB Calculus, Statistics, and so on.
On the other end, classes are over crowded when student interest exceeds the capacity of the school system. When 32 students register for a class, the High School may be forced to squeeze them into a single section, rather than create two, smaller sections because we lack the capacity to staff the extra section.
These are all hard, hard truths. They’re hard because they don’t reflect our values or priorities as a community. But let’s own up to them, and use them as a call to arms here in the Town of Homes. If you’re like me, you want Belmont’s name to be associated with the highest standards of learning. You are committed to excellent, free and public education for all our children. I ask that you join me in saying “Yes for Belmont” and voting “Yes” for the request for additional revenue to maintain our schools and town on April 7!