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.

  • Tony Schinella

    OMW Paul, really, it’s been nearly five years. You really have to move on. Just let it go. Best, Tony

    • And yet we still feel the pain here, Tony. Actions have consequences.

    • powelstock

      We still live with the consequences, Tony. It’s easy for you to say “move on”: You never lived here in the first place.

      • Tony Schinella

        Seriously, David? Wow. OK. From someone so smart, too.

  • Seth

    Paul, thanks for the article and for the startling key
    points about the difficult situation for our schools. I also agree that, among the other factors you mentioned, with Schinella’s pernicious messaging about the role of government no longer a factor , voters will have a
    greater ability to judge this override on its actual merits.

  • Thanks for the comments, Seth!

  • Rorvig

    Actually, Tony Schinella was the first editor that the Belmont Citizen had for many years that covered both sides of issues. Apparently it had seemed fair to you to have an exclusively left viewpoint in the town’s only newspaper. Tony also worked very hard and covered some stories with a depth that had been sorely lacking.

    Like the advocates of net metering, you assume you are speaking for all of Belmont when you are not. Many of us would be delighted to
    have Tony Schinella back.

    It’s odd to hear you allege bias in others, while you happily exercise a solidly leftist bias in your blog and your columns in the Belmont Citizen. Plus, Tony’s response is that of a gentleman, whereas your comments are quite rude.

    • Well – my opinion column, Hot House, in the BCH is an opinion column. And my blog is my blog. I’m not sure where the conflict is? Tony was the editor (and main reporter) for the town paper, which is a different thing, altogether.

      Also, I’m not sure when I ever said I’m speaking for all of Belmont. If you can find that quote, please share it here. But I speak for some of Belmont – I think a bigger part of Belmont than Mr. Oberdorfer, and one that’s tired of having their opinions and priorities (schools, library, parks, youth services, elder services, roads, sidewalks, sustainability) ignored, attacked and shouted down by a powerful minority.

      As for net metering – I think there’s more that the town has to learn about what went into the curious BMLD and MLAB decision on net metering. But we’ll see…

      I do appreciate your comment, however, and I’m glad you took the time to read my post. I will agree with you that Tony had redeeming qualities as a reporter and editor and had a good “nose” as a journalist. I think the stuff he did with the Sunshine Foundation was great.

      However, when issues (like the override) tripped his “Tea Party” switch, he lost his objectivity and really became partisan in his coverage. He made pretty clear he thought Belmont residents were “spoiled” compared to what he and his family had in New Hampshire and he was a consistently divisive presence, editorially and otherwise. He readily used innuendo and invective to drive “page views.”

      • Rorvig

        You asked for a quote re: speaking for all of Belmont. How about this, from above: “Belmont is happy to be rid of him. . .
        “ I haven’t read anything else on your
        blog site, so do not know if there are other instances.

        Unfortunately, until we vote, we usually have no firm idea what the majority of residents thinks about an issue. In the case of net metering, interestingly, we do have a quite clear indication. Only 18 houses in town have solar roofinstallations,despite the financial incentive to do so. How many residences are there in town that could have solar panels, but the owners have chosen not to go that route? Maybe at least 5,000? That’s a pretty solid indication that residential solar is not the burning issue for Belmont residents that its letter-writing proponents claim that it is. And those residents who do not want solar panels on their roof are probably not that happy about having to pay higher electric bills to subsidize those who opt for solar.

        When you say that a “bigger part of Belmont” is “tired of
        having their “opinions and priorities . . . attacked and shouted down by a powerful minority”, you are not only making assumptions about the size of the two groups, you also seem to discount that those in the “minority” might also be very tired of the endless demands that Belmont leap into funding what often seems to be the pet project of some very vocal and endlessly persistent advocacy group (and, yes, there is a good chance that that group is a
        minority of Belmont residents). The demand for a new library is an outstanding example, but there have been others So often we seem to be confronted with an
        unnecessary project, or overly elaborate plans when a simpler project would do, or the town drifts into spending substantial amounts on feasibility studies and architectural plans before a decision has been made about whether we really want or need what has been proposed. Or maintenance is neglected on a usable building because some would really rather have a new one. Sometimes too, decisions are made by Town Meeting or even committees (the expensive and quite pointless Belmont Center reconfiguration which will not change the traffic problems). Many in town feel that they
        have been left out of processes like those. We go to meetings where it is very clear that the committee is only having a public meeting because they are required to do so or to feign an interest in public opinion; their decision has already been made.

        Oh yes, we are tired, very tired, of the constant pleas that money from the taxpayers is all that is needed to make Belmont into someone’s idea of nirvana. So the voters succumb to the doomsayers and agree to some new capital expenditure, only to be told that gee, our taxes
        cannot cover our regular obligations and so now we really must have an override. About the only need that we
        can mostly all agree on are the roads and sidewalks, but somehow those two items never seem to be at the top of the funding wish list.

        Of course, Tony Schinella was the editor of a newspaper, and your columns are opinion columns, two different formats. My point, which I perhaps should have made more clearly, was that for so many years there was no chance that the Belmont Citizen would adequately describe the fiscally conservative position, much less defend it. Readers had no explication of any opposing view unless someone decided to write a column about it. While Tony was the editor, readers of the newspaper could expect much more balanced coverage than most of them had ever seen in that paper. Perhaps that disappointed the people who prefer a newspaper to parrot their own views, but to me, biased coverage is not journalism.

        But balanced coverage made Tony a Tea Partier to you? Wow, what a leap. That would probably surprise him, as I have heard that he is a Democrat. Seriously,I never saw “partisan”, “divisive”, “innuendo”, or “invective”. Those were in your eyes. I saw information about town matters that I welcomed. I suppose it was a bit of a shock to you to have your newspaper not always champion your perspective. Actually, plenty of times I could detect that the writing skated closer to the tax and spend perspective than I would have liked.Congratulations to Tony Schinella for making us both feel sometimes that he was rooting for the other side.

        Tony brought us lots of information that we would not have
        had otherwise, so yes, I would “go to bat for that kind of behavior”. You state that it is “pretty clear” that Tony was NoFreeloader. It’s true that NFL evidenced, in addition to a taste for the fray, a pretty serious grasp of Belmont history and facts, but surely Belmont could have at least two people, I hope, who seek out facts and statistics.
        I have no idea who NFL is, nor do I care. It is the facts and perspectives that matter to a discussion, not pinning them on an individual. NFL’s disappearance when Tony left the
        editorship is not proof that they are the same person. I assume you know that it was at roughly that same time that the newspaper adopted a policy that everyone must post on the site with their own name. Overnight, the
        Belmont Citizen website became dead as a doornail. With anonymous postings, it had won an award for being a “lively” website. There will be no such award for the boring Belmont Citizen website as it exists now – not only missing vigorous and informative discussions, but also trailing other websites on news stories. There is plenty of over-the-back-fence opinion in Belmont, but the end of anonymous posts has stifled a more public forum. I don’t know, but perhaps it was Tony Schinella who brought us our brief fling with a lively news website.

        • Well – I really don’t consider roads, sidewalks and schools as “someone’s idea of nirvana” – that’s just the basic blocking and tackling of government. But obviously we see things differently there Rorvig.

  • BelmontResident

    Has any discussion addressed this:

    Belmont has 97 students serviced outside the district and another 222 international students. The cost per out of district pupil is $65,000 inclusive of transportation. For international students, the state mandates that Belmont has to potentially provide up to two and a half hours of private service per day per student, meaning that Belmont needs to add two employees to their staff regardless of whether an override passes or not. – See more at: http://belmont.wickedlocal.com/article/20150218/News/150216535#sthash.PY2qOlMe.dpuf

    Why not concentrate on what is our vs. not / Isn’t that normal? Save $$??

    • Good point on mandated costs, for sure. I’m not totally sure about “concentrate on what is our(s) vs. not”? Can you explain? We’re certainly not going to be able to just ignore mandated services, tempting though that is.

      You could certainly talk about the BPS opening a facility to service those 97 “out of district” students with intensive (and expensive) needs (most have severe developmental/learning/emotional/physical disabilities). But that will cost a good bit of money in the short run (build a facility, staff it, etc.) even if it saves money in the long run (which it might). Also: skyrocketing school population – +100 net new students moving into Belmont for the last year above the town’s guidance. How do you get around that without increasing revenue?

  • Tony Schinella

    There’s a bunch of stuff to respond here but I’ll try to keep it short and move on with my post-Belmont life.
    First, “Rorvig,” thanks for the comments. I appreciate them. The opinions you state were held by many in the community, especially those who were frustrated with previous editors (the McLean debacle coverage always came up …).
    I appreciate Paul’s comments, as always, because I’ve always felt that while limited in his view of the world, he does have his heart in the right place. It has always been befuddling to me that he didn’t understand that
    everything was evolving with the two separate products – WickedLocalBelmont.com and the Belmont Citizen-Herald print edition.
    As far as his accusation that I was or am a “tea party conservative,” no, not really … it’s funny because while most socialists and liberal news
    sources I know believe that, my conservative friends and news sources think I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I define my personal beliefs as “liberal-tarian,” meaning that I have both small L libertarian and classic liberal beliefs and have for some time. I’ve never been a registered Republican, only an undeclared or Democrat.
    But make no mistake about it, I was, in fact, acting as the deliverer of facts, honest information as it was happening, and reported the truth to readers. Paul and others just didn’t like what was being reported because it didn’t fit in with their personal belief system (and that’s a big national problem these days).
    It’s astonishing now but if you look at the task force report, nearly everything in there was reported or written about during my tenure at the Belmont Citizen-Herald. For years and years, I wrote about the problems with the health and pension liabilities – like when the selectmen raided the Kendall fund in 2002 – and the unsustainable teach salary structure and false comparisons with “rich” communities instead of “similar sized” communities with the same structures – which won journalism awards for my coverage – and which is at the root of Belmont’s long-term school finance problems. The contracts have been pretty reasonable of late but everyone has forgotten the pay raises negotiated by Bowemonster which broke the bank in the first place, if I’m recalling correctly, 7 to 9 percent a year and some were 24 percent when teachers would get a degree advancement that didn’t necessarily mean they had become better teachers. I believe it was the Master 30 slot that when compared to other towns in the state, Belmont was the second highest. The town was in the Top 10 in nearly all the other slots. When we did the story showing what “like” towns were paying – meaning much less, in places like Arlington and Winchester – people went wild. Years later, your own superintendent had the honesty to say as much, that there was no ability to fiscally sustain the grid. The reporting was accurate, factually, and, as it turned out, way ahead of its time.
    It’s sad, too, because educating kids and having good teachers is so important. But you need that financial wiggle room so that when new kids do move into town – because Anne Mahon is blazing a real estate trail, making scads in commissions bringing new families into the community on the selling point that the Belmont has great schools (while out of the other side of the mouth, the pro-override forces are calling the schools a disaster and inferior, SMH).
    Paul, you are, of course, entitled to your opinion about the 2010 override coverage in those short election posts that enraged you so much at the time … I thought I had already addressed the issue, extensively, but you haven’t let it go … However, imagine my surprise, turning to Wicked Local Belmont this weekend, and seeing that exact same thing happening again: “Override tensions in Belmont lead to warning letters from the selectmen and town clerk” – http://belmont.wickedlocal.com/article/20150403/NEWS/150408019 – but, but … I’m not the editor anymore. How can this be happening when I was the one creating all the invective and supposedly making up stuff, Paul? No, sorry, all that stuff happened in 2010 and I wrote as much and you attacked me for reporting what was going on in the field because you didn’t like it. I didn’t have anything to do with stirring up animosity and anger in the community – it has always been there! I tried to explain this to you numerous times, in person and in my comments previously, but, alas, you refused to acknowledge it and, instead, maligned my character. I wasn’t someone behind a curtain making things up; your community doesn’t sing Kumbaya together and probably never will, sadly, because it really does need to come together to fix major problems including those awful roads (and yeah, we endorsed that one twice and went over all the numbers and the voters voted it down anyway).
    Good luck to the community tomorrow, whatever happens.
    Best, Tony

    • Alas, only the folks at Wickedlocal know who NFL was, because they had (have) the logs. We’ll likely never know who was behind that trolling. He or she is gone and I think we’re all happy for it.

      To clarify: the letters from the Selectmen and Ellen Cushman really have to do with complaints to them about lawn sign theft (on both sides) and nasty emails and social media posts (on both sides), not about commentary in the BCH or Belmontonian per se. Of course, the conversation has moved to platforms like Facebook in the last five years and that’s where a lot of the jawing takes place now.

      The comments section on the BCH and the Belmontonian are far more civil today than they were back then. Whether that’s a reflection of a changed mood in town or just better policing of the kind of invective and ad hominem attacks that were allowed back then, I couldn’t say. You were the editor of the town paper and, as I said, you’re a smart guy and a good reporter – and I readily acknowledge that you didn’t bring the friction (or vitriol) to town. It predates you and me both. You did have a particular slant to your coverage of town government that I would characterize as a “libertarian” point of view in which “government is the problem.”

      You know – everyone has their viewpoint. You admitted that yours is “libertarian.” I, on the other hand, am a “Sly and the Family Stonecrat.” 🙂 But our views do influence the way we see and interpret events. The dangerous thing is assuming that your side has a monopoly on the truth or a magic elixir that will fix all problems. I recognize that salaries account for a lot of our town budget. I just question that they’re the cause of our financial woes. It strikes me as completely obvious that inflation is the root cause of our budget woes. But one pernicious effect of Prop 2 1/2 is to put local governments in an almost constant state of fiscal distress. That then becomes fodder for folks who insist that the reason for that distress must be that “government can’t do anything right.” The crappier things become, the more the anti government crowd crows and the less faith the public has in government’s ability to do truly important things to improve their quality of life. It’s a vicious cycle – by design, I suspect.

      The big picture is that Belmont’s troubles have less to do with teacher salaries and “runaway government” than the fact that we (and towns like us) are forced to bear almost the entire burden of paying for our schools and infrastructure, with little to rely on but property taxes. That’s a crazy system and one that is bound to create vast inequalities.

      I’d say this: we live in the wealthiest nation on earth. The federal government has a $3-4 trillion (with a T) budget. Why, when it comes to educating the next generation – including students with special needs -building schools, fixing roads, investing in infrastructure, the message to small towns is “you’re on your own.” That’s a BIG problem that needs to be addressed whether Question 1 succeeds or fails at the ballot box tomorrow!

      • Tony Schinella

        Hi Paul,
        Your clarification is kinda irrelevant because, if you recall, the reporting you attacked – the little election blurbs – were about the same EXACT things – signs being stolen, email and phone call threats, etc. It’s the same reporting you attacked because you didn’t like that I paraphrased from a few people anonymously who didn’t want to get targeted any longer by other Town Meeting members.
        “Liberal-tarian” – there is a difference than Libertarian and I’ve explained it and coined the phrase, too, I believe. And, no, I never saw myself as having “a side”; I just looked at the data and reported it as such. Most people made up their own minds. You can pooh-pooh the teacher salary issue but that was huge at the time and we went around and around debating this. People just don’t get 24% pay increases because they took some extra college courses in any field like that and it took two new superintendents to finally admit that. It’s not “runaway government” – I never said that ever, that I recall; the what’s available versus what is needed. I don’t ever recall saying or writing that the people of Belmont were “spoiled,” either, as you quote; what I believe I said was that Belmont kids have it a lot better than most do, and that’s an opinion based on truth and life experience.
        And yes, I know while we may disagree on some things, your heart is in the right place. I don’t want to steal from children either – I want the best for them, too – we just have different ways of getting to that. Schools, streets – not highways, police, fire, etc. – are LOCAL expenses and your town decided years and years ago – and currently, too – not to put up an R&D facility that would have already brought millions into the town’s coffers and instead chose to save silver maple trees; gave the store away during the McLean negotiations, half of which didn’t get done and the other half was affordable housing which brought more special needs kids into the system; didn’t want a mall like Watertown, Woburn, Burlington, etc., and didn’t want R&D like Waltham, Lexington, etc.
        Lastly, don’t get me started on the federal budget stuff – not because we would probably agree more than disagree – we would; but we because of the waste, fraud, abuse, giveaways, and everything else going on. I could go on and on about that, since I’ve spent 30 years analyzing federal budgets and questioning presidential candidates “from my home in New Hampshire.” Best of luck, Tony