Don’t Get Mad – Get Active! Kickoff Meeting Tonight- 7:30 PM

The dire picture that is emerging from the town’s public school system and town government about the cuts that will be necessary next year to erase a more than $2 million budget in town finances are scary. But don’t get mad (or freaked out), – get active!

Tonight (Sunday) at 7:30 PM the folks behind Yes For Belmont (http://yesforbelmont.org) have organized a kick-off meeting in the Wadsworth Room, Belmont Hill School Athletic Center (2nd floor).

This is a great way to learn more about the override and get involved in the campaign to pass it.

Some background: according to a projected budget put together by the School Department, the schools face the prospect of deep cuts in the next fiscal year including:

  • Overall: 14 teaching positions and nearly 10 aides, average class size of 27 at BHS
  • Elementary schools: reduced music education, the firing of a third grade teacher (despite skyrocketing enrollment) the elimination of more than seven aides.
  • Middle School: Elimination of 8th grade music and art electives, further cuts to the team teaching models in English, math, science social studies and world language, elimination of some small group reading sections.
  • High School: Elimination of 1 English, 1 Math, 1 Social Studies and 1 fine and performing arts teacher. Elimination of AP art and other electives, prohibitions on seniors taking more than 5 classes.
  • District wide: elimination of a science director, elimination of a preschool teacher and other firings. Cuts to instructional material and supplies, reduction of facilities and professional development, ~$300 or ~$400 increase in fees for full day kindergarten.

That will be matched by cuts in town services as well: reductions in everything from road and sidewalk maintenance to grounds keeping and library hours.

Your presence and involvement are really critical if the override is to be a success. Come on out to Belmont Hill School tonight and learn more!

Override on the Ballot, Vote Yes Campaign Kicks Off

Yes For Belmont

With the Selectmen voting to put an override before voters, YesforBelmont, a campaign to educate the public about the need for a property tax increase kicked off this week.

With the Belmont Board of Selectmen voting unanimously to put a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 Override question before voters in the April 7th Town Election, supporters of the measure are ramping up efforts to educate voters about the Town’s dire financial straits and the need for a property tax increase.

Yes for Belmont kicked off this week with e-mail messages and a website, yesforbelmont.com, to raise awareness about the need for an override and to encourage Belmont residents to register and come out to vote in April.

The group is also organizing a kick-off meeting on March 1st at 7:30PM in the Wadsworth Room at the Belmont Hill School Athletic Center. 

Thirteen years have passed since Belmont voters last approved a property tax increase above the state mandated 2 1/2 percent cap to fund Town and School services. In that time, Belmont has seen a steady increase in costs related to health care, pension benefits and salaries well above 2 1/2 percent annually. The result has been a steady stream of cuts to town- and school services and raids on any available source of one-time funds as the Town struggles to stay within the confines of “level service” budgets.

Both Town Administrator David Kale and Schools Superintendent John Phelan have warned in recent weeks about dire consequences should the town not find a way to increase revenues – from cuts to much used public services like the Library and the Council on Aging to drastic increases in class size, as the Public Schools are forced to cut teaching and support staff positions in the face of fast-growing enrollment. Superintendent Phelan estimates that 22 positions will be cut from general education to help close an expected $1.7M budget gap, with more cuts scheduled in future years.

Among the key bullet points:

  • Belmont has added 107 new students each year (on average) over last 3 years, the equivalent of 4 new classrooms per year.
  • Belmont kindergartens have 30% more students than grade 12, suggesting a wave of young families moving to town.
  • Unfunded state mandates in areas like special education and English language learning claim a large share of School spending and limit the discretion of educators to allocate money as needed.

A Financial Task Force appointed by the Board of Selectmen found that Belmont’s public schools and town are already extremely lean. Per pupil spending in Belmont is $1,772 less than the Massachusetts average and as much as $4,000 less per student than other top districts.

Belmont voters defeated an override in 2010. In the wake of that vote, the schools and town cut deeply to make due with less. Among the cuts was a drastic curtailment of elective classes at Belmont High. As then principal Mike Harvey explained to parents: “there was not enough space in elective classes to schedule every student with the minimum of 6 full-year classes,” given the budget constraints. The solution: shorten the length of Ceramics 1, Drawing and Painting 1, Photography 1, Sculpture 1, History of Popular Music and Music Workshop from a full-year to a semester.This on top of cuts in prior two years that eliminated 19 class sections try to live within budget constraints.

How will things go this time around? I’m hopeful. The OneBelmont override that failed in 2010 was held in a special June election. It also came amid a charged anti-government atmosphere in the Bay State (Scott Brown would soon win election to the Senate) and amid a deep economic recession. The atmosphere in Belmont and Massachusetts generally are far different today than they were in 2010.

I’ll also note that in 2010, our Town of Homes was poorly served by the Belmont Citizen Herald under then-editor Anthony Schinella. Schinella was a Tea Party Conservative who decided, unilaterally, that the Citizen Herald was actually an opinion blog, not a newspaper and should be operated as such – with an emphasis on sensation and invective and only a passing duty to report the facts. Schinella was more than willing to abandon his duty as a gatekeeper of the truth in order to gin up controversy and emotions in town by exploiting deep seated animosities (elders versus school kids, working moms versus stay at home moms, schools versus roads, townies versus newcomers) in exchange for page views or whatever other secondary gain he got from the whole affair. Belmont is happy to be rid of him – and I expect that the debate this time around will be fair, constructive and fact-based, no matter the outcome.

I encourage everyone to turn out to the March 1 meeting at Belmont Hill to learn more about the YesforBelmont campaign and the override! Belmont needs you now – more than ever.

Ponderpalooza: Selectmen Continue to Weigh April Override

The Selectmen are pondering whether to put a Proposition 2 1/2 override before voters, despite a clear message from its own Financial Task Force.

The Selectmen are pondering whether to put a Proposition 2 1/2 override before voters, despite a clear message from its own Financial Task Force.

There has certainly been no shortage of information on the precarious state of town finances in recent weeks, yet Belmont’s three Selectmen continue to ponder whether to put a Proposition 2 1/2 Override before voters in April to address the problem.

Just so you know: the Board’s next go-round will be tomorrow evening, Tuesday February 17, a 6:00 PM when it will hold a joint meeting with the School Committee in the Selectmen’s Meeting Room at Town Hall. A whopping 15 minutes have been set aside to discuss an override. I strongly encourage all my readers to attend – and bring some friends. The agenda is here.

By law, voters must approve any increase in property taxes that would increase net property tax revenue (less new growth) above the state-mandated 2 1/2 percent annual growth. The Board of Selectmen act as gatekeepers, with a majority needed to agree to put any override on the ballot. Belmont last approved a Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund town and school operations more than a decade ago, in 2002, though overrides to fund so-called “debt exclusions” (read: “construction loans”) have been approved since then to pay for capital projects including the Senior Center, the Wellington Elementary School and, recently, a portion of the cost of the Underwood Pool.

Belmont’s Board of Selectmen is currently weighing a report (PDF) by its own Financial Task Force – the product of 18 months of hard work by representatives of the town’s main committees (School, Capital Budget, Warrant), as well as the Town Manager. That report was unequivocal in its findings. Namely:

  • Belmont should seek a $4.5 million increase in revenue via an override of the state’s Proposition 2 1/2 property tax cap. While this will not solve all of the town’s problems (a number in the neighborhood of $8 million is needed), it will buy the Town time to muster support for further revenue increases and, possibly, realize some marginal savings elsewhere in the town budget.
  • Belmont faces a $2.8 million revenue shortfall in its next fiscal year (FY2016), a $4.4 million gap in fiscal year 2017 and a $7.7 million shortfall in revenue by FY 2019 if there is no action to increase town revenues – 80 percent of which come from residential property taxes.

Some other notable findings in the Financial Task Force report:

  • Our fiscal deficits exist despite flat-line budgeting and steep cuts in school and town services. Town departments have “incurred staffing reductions over the years” and “are stretched extremely thin in terms of resources.”
  • Over the last 20 years Public Works permanent staff has been reduced by 26% and seasonal staff by 58%
  • Fire and Police staffing have been reduced by 10 positions. Further reductions will require elimination of core services
  • The Belmont Public Schools budget has been “structurally insufficient for the past few years, resulting in freezes in staff hiring and the purchase of materials in this year (FY15) as well as FY14).
  • Increased enrollment in the public schools and state-mandated spending in areas like special education will force the town to increase spending there.
  • Belmont has added 300 students over projections in the last three years and is projected to add 300 more in the next three years: close to the enrollment of an entire elementary school worth of children.

That seems pretty straight forward to me. Consider also that the Board heard, in a Saturday morning working group meeting, from School Superintendent, John Phelan, about the projected cuts that will be needed for the public schools to live within the projected budget for next fiscal year. As reported by The Belmontonian, that includes the elimination of 22 staff positions, increases in non-instructional “free” periods and increases in fees for activities and extracurricular activities.

Town Administrator David Kale discussed the limited revenue options available to the town, which gets 80 cents of every dollar from residential property taxes and another 9 cents in the form of state aid. In other words: there are few sources of additional revenue that will make any appreciable dent in the Town’s structural deficit. The Town has also drained most sources of “one time” money to paper over deficits in previous years.

It is unclear what more will come out of the joint session with the School Committee. Perhaps some more hand wringing and brow knitting. More frustration at the “unfunded mandates” passed down to communities like Belmont from both State and Federal officials. I join them in their frustration – AND I recognize that the time for outrage is not now.

In short: the writing is on the wall. What we need now – as always- is clear headed and astute political leadership that can read that writing and act decisively in the best interest of the Town. I hope you will all join me in urging our Selectmen: Mr. Paolillo, Mr. Baghdady and Mr. Rojas to act now to put this issue before voters. You can e-mail them (all) at: selectmen@belmont-ma.gov 

Tell your friends!

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Paul Roberts, Editor, Blogging Belmont