Marathon Town Meeting ends with dramatic vote on free cash, library aides

It was Spring Town Meeting once again on Monday evening and, as with our previous two sessions, the meeting ran long — just about till midnight — ending with a dramatic standing vote on an amendment to allocate additional funds from Belmont’s free cash to the School Department.

The amendment, proposed by Anne Mahon, was a political longshot when it was submitted last week. By the time it was considered, at around 10:00pm Monday evening, both the Board of Selectmen and Warrant Committee had voted unanimously not to recommend it to Town Meeting, and the School Committee split on the issue 3-2 with one member absent. (I voted in favor of the motion both on School Committee and in Town Meeting, as did fellow SC member Laurie Graham). The amendment, which proposed transferring around $175,000 from the town’s cash reserves to the BPS, was couched in terms of restoring proposed cuts to library aide positions at the elementary schools, and restoring positions that were slated for elimination at the High School. And that clearly touched a nerve within a Town Meeting, with members queing up three and four deep to speak on the issue and making clear that they did not support the proposed elimination of the library aide positions, or the cuts at the High School. Comments ran three or four to one in favor of the amendment in a debate that lasted for 90 minutes. The final vote wasn’t close — 116 to 84 in favor (someone check those numbers for me, please). There were impassioned speeches on both sides with town leaders arguing, in essence, that the Town faces steep declines in revenues in FY10 and especially FY 11 and won’t be able to count on federal stimulus money, which is being used to patch over shortfalls in state aid and a huge structural budget deficit this year. Supporters, including Mrs. Mahon argued that every cut to School Dept. programming just creates a new, low benchmark for “level funding,” and that programs– once cut — don’t return. Let me just say that I found that argument extremely, extremely persuasive.

Mahon was backed by a string of other notables — Fred Paulson, Monte Allen, Jack Weis, Kim Becker, former SC Chair John Bowe, many making a similar argument and speaking voluably for the restoration of likely cuts to Elementary Library Aide positions and Belmont High School positions. While the School Committee has made clear that it has full discretion to decide how the additional funds will be allocated, Town Meeting members last night made no secret of the fact that they expect it will used as intended: to restore Library Aide positions and positions at BHS.

There was also a clear sense, from those speaking in support, that town leaders — though earnest in their efforts to arrive at a sensible budget for the next fiscal year, had badly misjudged public sentiment in proposing elimination of the Library Aide positions, which will sharply curtail use of the libraries at the elementary schools and could result in their outright closure. (Principals have floated alternative ideas — book carts brought to classrooms, etc. — but most say that removing aides will greatly reduce use of the libraries.) In one of the more entertaining speeches of the evening, which might be remembered as the “Cat Leash” speech, TM member David Alper related a story about the Belmont Board of Health proposing the mandatory use of cat leashes to stem an outbreak of rabies in the early 1990s. Town Meeting “in its infinite wisdom” soundly rejected the idea, Alper recalled. “The powers that be made a decision that didn’t sit well with the town. It was a minor error of choice, and I think that’s what’s happened here,” he said. Great stuff.

Speaking against the measure, SC Chair Ann Rittenberg noted that significant one time funds had already been poured into this year’s budget to preserve programming, and that Belmont was already allowing stimulus money to go to the Schools with no offset in the allocation of town revenues, as other towns were requiring. Acting Superintendent Pat Aubin worried that the town was clinging onto threads of what used to be robust library programs, with full time librarians and library aides helping to support classroom programs and help students learn how to use library resources and find the information they need. But speaker after speaker urged the body to accept the measure, saying — in essence – -they’d rather have threads than go naked.

A handful of TM members spoke against the measure. Jeanne Widmer (wife of Moderator Mike Widmer) and Sherry Jones (wife of Selectman Ralph Jones) expressed sympathy for those seeking to avoid cuts to the schools, but argued that the measure was short sighted. Widmer suggested that its passage would jeapordize an upcoming debt exclusion vote on Wellington Elementary. That was not a view held widely, though a fuller discussion will almost certainly come Wednesday when Town Meeting votes to appropriate close to $40m for the design and construction of a new Wellington Elementary, subject to approval by voters in a town wide election. More than a few speakers urged town leaders to begin preparing voters for the necessity of a Prop 2 1/2 override, saying that the town’s main problem was a large structural budget deficit that had been allowed to grow, unchecked, in the last decade. “This deficit is structural. It won’t be fixed with free cash or bake sales by the PTA,” said TM member Monte Allen. “I call on the town’s leadership to exercise leadership on this issue and bring the town along with them.”

Globe article highlights push for new Wellington

First of all, I got my snazzy Wellington Yes yard sign today and have it posted proudly in the lawn. I’ve seen them popping up all over town. If anyone is interested in getting one for their yard, drop me a line (paul (at) bloggingbelmont.com).

For those of you who missed it, the Boston Globe’s North section ran an article today by Jen Lefferts on the push to rebuild the Wellington. The article highlighted Together for Wellington, and the effort to get younger voters to the polls, using tools like Facebook and Twitter to reach and inform younger voters, including BHS seniors and graduates of recent classes. Jen did a great job with the piece, interviewing two former Wellington students: Jacob Scharfman and Ben Schrekinger. Scharfman is a BHS senior who’s quoted as saying that “Our elementary school students deserve a new building” and “I’m willing to pay for it.” Schreckinger is a BHS ’08 grad who also provides some great quotes, including the closer about education and the schools being a defining feature of the community. Nice! Lefferts also manages to provide a nice encapsulation of the debt exclusion vote, interviewing T4W co-chair Laurie Slap and resident Nancy Oteri, who is opposed to it.

Jacob and Ben are just two of the almost 300 members of the Together For Wellington Facebook group – many of them in the 18-24 age group (though certainly not all). It’s been an eye-opening experience to use FB as a way to pull folks into the Wellington campaign and to push information out about important events around town related to the campaign. It remains to be seen what impact it will have on election day, as FB “friendship” is a loose kind of bond that doesn’t necessarilly translate into commitment. But my guess is that this kind of outreach is going to be a staple of local elections for years to come, as it was for the National election in November.

All in all a good read. I’m interested in your thoughts.

Vote YES on June 8!

One week to the Wellington Vote

A combination of work, School Committee, family obligations and a focus on Together for Wellington have taken me offline for the last week. Apologies. I won’t let it happen again. 😉 But Bloggingbelmont is still here and gearing up for a busy week ahead: Town Meeting MOnday evening, School Committee Tuesday evening (bound to be eventful), then a sprint to next Monday’s debt exclusion vote on the Wellington.

A couple things on that note:

First: Together for Wellington is looking for volunteers for this final week and for election day to do sign holding and poll checking. They’re looking for folks to act as poll checkers (basically: you sit behind the voter check-in table and record which T4W supporters have voted).  You can volunteer anytime from 7 am until 5 pm.

Together for Wellington is also looking for volunteers to hold signs on Monday June 8th (election day). Times Needed:  7:00 am – 9:00 am, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm. You’ll be a very visible reminder around town to head to the polls and vote Yes!  If you’re interested in volunteering, contact me or e-mail

Gretchen McClain  (poll-checking)
gmcclain(at)verizon(dot)net
Ellen Kassaraba or Chris Doyle (sign-holding)
ellen(at)kassaraba(dot)com
chris(at)bramsdoyle(dot)com

In other news:  There’s a flurry of editorial activity on behalf of the upcoming Wellington vote, including letters from Angelo Firenze and Town Treasurer  Floyd Carman in support of a “yes” vote in the special election on June 8. Mr. Firenze notes that “the problems with the Wellington make renovation of the existing structure impractical.” Mr. Carman notes:

“From a dollars and cents perspective — taking the Wellington in its current condition — if we do nothing now, in three to five years the school could potentially fail and as a town we will have no choice but to rebuild or renovate…The $12.4 million funding from the Mass. School Building Authority, in my opinion, is a gift.”

The paper also published a timeline story, providing a history of the Wellington from construction to…reconstruction, basically. An interesting read.

BCH regular Tony Oberdorfer weighed in with an opinion piece (New Wellington: a bad idea) that suggests Belmontonians stop pushing so hard for their kids to go to four year colleges so we could make better use of Minuteman Voc Tech and using money gained from shutting down Wellington to relieve “minor overcrowding” at the remaining elementary schools. Enough said about that.

There will be more this week, including visibility efforts around town (lawn signs, at long last) and a big get out the vote effort on election day. Stay tuned!

State: now is the time for Wellington

I* just returned from the community wide forum on the Wellington Elementary school project. The meeting at the Chenery Middle School was lightly attended, with around 70 people in audience to hear town officials and Kathy Craven of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) answer questions about the pending debt exclusion to fund reconstruction of Wellington Elementary. 

Craven, who left four young children in the care of her physician husband to attend the meeting, was given the opportunity to speak first and answer questions. Her message to the assembled was loud and clear: now is the time to do the Wellington. And, should Belmont fail to pass the debt exclusion, the town shouldn’t expect to see money like the $12.4m that’s being offered now anytime soon. In particular, Craven said that MSBA grants, which are funded directly from state sales tax revenue, have been based on an assumption that sales tax revenues will grow by around 3.5% annually, not drop, as they have in the last year. The result will be a steep decline in grants — if not an outright moratorium on state aid for school construction projects like the Wellington “by the middle of the next decade,” Craven said. The funding for Wellington has been set aside for Belmont and will be available to the town the minute voters fund the remainder of the project, she said. 

Asked (by me) what would happen to the $12.4m allocated for Belmont should the debt exclusion fail, Craven said that the money would be given to other towns. “Given the timing of these projects, it wouldn’t be fair to hold onto that money,” she said. 

Craven also pointed out that, based on the experiences of other towns such as Norwood, Belmont voters could be pleasantly surprised by the estimates returned by builders once the project is sent out to bid. Norwood, she said, estimated its new High School would cost $80m to build, but settled on a bid for just $66m — a sign of the buyers market for construction projects in state. 

The meeting also included presentations by School Committee Chairwoman Anne Rittenburg, Treasurer Floyd Carmen, Pat Brusch, Vice Chair of the Wellington Building Committee, Joel Mooney of the Permanent Building Committee, as well as Jonathan Levy architects and others. Questions from the audience were polite and treaded on familiar territory: managing cost overruns, the challenge of relocating Wellington students, alternatives to the proposed building plan. Selectman Angelo Firenze asked for a commitment that any savings in the project would not be used to expand the scope of the project — a pledge that Brush readily gave, while pointing out that the very building that hosted the event was an example of the town’s ability to do large school construction projects on time and under budget. The Chenery Building Committee will return more than $600,000 in unused construction bond funds to the town at an upcoming Town Meeting.

(*) I am a member of both Town Meeting and The Belmont School Committee.  Read the caveats about me and my opinions on the About page.