Closed government? Questions hang over new Town-School consolidation plan

“Consolidation” has been the Holy Grail of elected officials in Belmont for longer than almost anyone can remember. By consolidation, we’re talking about streamlining the Town’s budget by finding efficiencies within both Town and School Dept. operations. Do we really need two separate ground crews with two separate payrolls: one to mow the lawn in front of Town Hall and the other to mow the lawn in front of the High School? You get the idea.

Various committees and subcommittees have studied both the in-town and regional consolidation question from different angles over the last two decades and produced reports on their findings. Some have borne fruit: the town has found ways to share its special education costs and fuel costs with other towns. But its also true that many of the larger-scale reform plans are collecting dust down at Town Hall. The nice thing, though, is that you can go down there (or go online) and read them. On file are also the minutes of the meetings of the committees that assembled the reports: who was involved in the discussions, what outside opinions were considered, what issues wrestled over and which compromises reached.

Not so the latest plan for consolidation of services between the School Department and Town. That plan, articulated in a  memo that was approved by the Warrant Committee last week, is the product of an informal and closed door group of the Town’s senior elected officials: the heads of the Warrant Committee, School Committee, and Board of Selectmen, which some have dubbed the “Officers’ Group.” This group has been meeting privately and is something of an open secret in Town. Since being elected to School Committee, I’ve had a number of constituents as well as fellow elected officials ask me about what it was up to, so I decided to ask.

A Story in the Boston Metro on the Former “A-Line” on the Green Line

The Metro published a piece on the former A-line that discontinued service to Watertown 40 years ago on Sunday.  The story is at

NYT: Literary legend Ray Bradbury fights for local libraries

With all the debate in town about preserving our elementary school libraries, I couldn’t help but note this story on the front page of today’s New York Times about sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s crusade to preserve public libraries in his home, Ventura County, California.

Though the article is about preserving public libraries, rather than school libraries, it touches on many of the same issues that have come home to roost here in Belmont: falling property taxes that have historically been the lifespring of public libraries and the growth of the Internet as a source of information. Communities across the Bay State (including Belmont) are cutting funding to libraries, which have been forced to reduce hour. Some also question the value that public libraries provide. This despite figures that show library use is booming during this recession, as out of work employees queue up for access to computers and families look for an inexpensive source of books, movies and  other programming.

Bradbury is a lifelong advocate of public libraries. His most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel about a furture, authoritarian society where books and reading are banned. He wrote it on a pay typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library.

“Libraries raised me,” he’s quoted saying.  “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Here in Belmont, the issue of funding for library aides that keep our elementary school libraries functioning will be debated at a meeting of School Committee on Tuesday evening. But that debate is just a warm up to what the town will face in the fall, once planning starts for Fiscal Year 2011, with funding for both the town library and school libraries likely to be a point of contention. 

An open letter from the Save Our Libraries Committee

Editor’s Note: I am reprinting a letter sent to me by the Save Our Libraries Committee, a group of parent library volunteers and coordinators who are organizing to support funding for public school libraries and looking for ways to sustain the mission of the libraries into the future. There will be an important meeting of the School Committee  next Tuesday, June 23rd, to discuss the allocation of around $175,000 from the Town’s free cash fund, which could be used to restore proposed cuts to Library Aide positions at the town’s elementary schools. The letter is reprinted here in its entirety. — Paul

Save Our Libraries Committee
Parent Library Volunteers and Coordinators

June 17, 2009

Dear School Committee Member:

We’d like to begin by thanking you for your dedication and hard work on behalf of the schools, the children, and the entire community of Belmont.  We are a group of parent library volunteers from all four elementary schools.  We are writing to ask for your support in allocating the $175,000 in funds voted on in Town Meeting to fund the four library aides and to reinstate the high school teaching positions.

While we are aware of the concerns regarding the future sustainability of these funds, we consider the libraries to be an essential core service to our schools, fundamental to supporting literacy and building a foundation of learning.  The value of the libraries is both measurable and greater then the sum of its parts.  The issue of keeping the libraries open has involved many more people in the civic process, and this discourse will ultimately lead to more involvement, commitment and buy-in by community members.  Together, the community can seek creative sources of future funding and converse more deeply about its priorities and how to support and sustain them.  We respectfully request that the School Committee allocates the $175,000 from “free cash” for the purpose for which it was intended:  to restore the elementary school library aides and the teaching positions at the high school.  It is our considered view that if the funding for the library aides is not allocated to the library aide positions, the school libraries will close.

As active library coordinators and volunteers, we are committed to supporting the functioning of the libraries.  Our group has met to discuss how we could help to sustain the school libraries in the coming year and in future years.  The libraries cannot remain open without the paid aides.  While volunteers are essential to supporting the library program, they could not effectively manage all of the day-to-day responsibilities of the library.  Our library aides are the essential link to keeping functioning collections in our elementary school libraries.  The library aides are an extremely cost effective line item in the budget.  They function as “librarians” but at the salary of an aide.

Our weekly time in the school libraries offers us unique perspectives on their benefits as well as a sense of the challenges that the schools and the community would encounter if the infrastructure – the aides – to support them was no longer available.  Following are some of our observations about benefits that may not immediately come to mind:

BENEFITS.  Our School Libraries…

  • Ensure every child has a weekly visit to the library.  This provides more equitable access to books for all children regardless of income level, reading level, or parental availability.  The aides are familiar with each child and his or her particular needs as well as the library holdings and can therefore make tailored recommendations.
  • Provide child-centered learning.  Much in our schools is teacher directed and structured; the weekly visit to the library provides a unique opportunity for each child to direct his or her own literacy.  Those who are struggling to read may particularly benefit from choosing to read rather than being directed to do so.
  • Communicate value to the children about this most fundamental of skills.
  • Create excitement about learning amongst the children.  The children make recommendations of books to one another!  They share their enthusiasm and this opens up horizons that may not otherwise be accessible to one child alone.
  • Bring parents into the schools.  Parents meet each other face to face.  They get to know the children in the school and in the neighborhood by name.  They have more contact with teachers.  This strengthens the fabric of our community and our neighborhoods.  It creates connections and provides continuity.  These parents are more likely to stay and volunteer in other aspects of the schools.

ADDED BENEFITS.  Our School Library Aides…

  • Run the libraries efficiently and professionally.  The aides are skilled, experienced, committed.  They ensure that volunteer efforts are focused and fully utilized.  The aides likely could not be replaced in future at a similar pay scale.
  • Maintain the integrity of the collections.  They ensure the investment in materials is protected.  They manage and catalog incoming donations.  Our library collections are relevant and current (and attractive to the children) because of the aides’ expertise.
  • Serve as an important resource to the teachers, students, parents and staff.  Teachers may regularly and easily check out books for their classrooms.  The aide may pull out books relevant to class curricula, provide support for student projects, support parent queries.  Teachers gain essential prep time that will need to be made up if aides are cut.

In this year fraught with challenges and changes within our schools it is even more important that we maintain the continuity of this essential service.  As Wellington relocates in the coming year, its library aide will be essential to preserve the viability of the library collection.  As Butler welcomes its new principal, the continuity at the “heart” of the school, its library, will be helpful to him as he establishes connections with both students and parents.

Thank you for your careful consideration and anticipated support for reinstating the library aides.

Save Our Libraries Committee, Parent Library Coordinators and Volunteers

Alisa Gardner-Todreas
Sue Morris

Ilyse Robbins Mohr

Colleen Goodsell
Kathleen Kim
Joanne MacIsaac
Amanda Sawires Yager
Yuri Sung

Melina Jacovides
Christel Libenson

Janine Sciarappa
Heidi Steinert

Winn Brook:
Jennifer Angel
Mac Devivo
Joanne Lonergan