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.