Firenze to School Committee: Full Day K will sink Wellington Override

This is the second installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. You can read the first part of the interview by clicking here.

Angelo Firenze

In the first part of our conversation, Belmont Town Selectman Angelo Firenze and I spoke about his experience growing up in Belmont, how the town and its politics had changed since the 1940s and 50s, the job of being a selectman, and the current Board.

As our conversation continued, it became more topical, with Firenze weighing in on everything from funding for the schools, to the town’s business environment, to plans for a senior center and new library.

Our conversation picks up with Selectman Firenze continuing his discussion of Belmont’s level of per pupil spending (just FYI — Belmont ranked 205 out of 327 school districts the Commonwealth for per pupil spending, though Belmont is also at the bottom of the pile in receiving State aid for educational funding). Firenze’s position — which he articulates frequently — is that Belmont can do with less spending per pupil and lower standard schools because the community support for education is so strong. Firenze also talks about his concerns that continued tax overrides tied to school funding or other projects will drive older residents out of town.

Angelo Firenze: could we spend more money on education? Sure. Should we? If we had it, yes. But this is where the debate comes in. Look, I bought this house in 1977 and I paid $65,000 for it. I think I could get more for it if I sold it today. It’s assessed at $1.1 million. The house across the street recently sold for $1.45 million. Now that person who paid $1.45 million has a different expectation from the town than I do. Now I can afford to pay taxes on $1.1 million, fortunately. But not everyone can. So one of two things can happen, and that’s where the real rub comes in. You can chase all of the old people out of town who can’t afford to stay here. These are people who have lived here all their lives.

B2: But…come on. They’re being taxed based on the appreciation of an asset they purchased — their house. If they find that too much, can’t they downsize , but stay within town? Maybe purchase a condominium? If they didn’t want to move, couldn’t they get a reverse mortgage on their property and tap into the equity to help them pay their taxes and make ends meet?

AF: Why would you want them to have to do that? We’ve got to keep people in town. We’ve got to find a way to find right balance. That’s the very thing, diversity, that makes Belmont a great community. If we just raise spending, we’re going to force people out who can’t afford to live here. Let me ask you, what’s the right amount of property taxes that the town should be collecting?

B2: Well…I think the town should have all of its properties assessed at an appropriate level, and should collect taxes based on those assessed values.

AF: Let me ask you this: Is it in the town’s best interest for me to sell house or stay? If I move out, who’s going to move into this house? It’s got four bedrooms. A young family with kids will move in. If we continue on this path of letting people who are on the border line of being able to afford their house leave town because of the increased value of the house. If you allow that logical chain of events to happen, with constantly escalating real estate taxes and spending, then Belmont will look like Weston or Lincoln. You’ll end up in a situation where only people who can afford to live here move here.

B2: But isn’t the converse true, also? If you continue to short change education and services that young families want and need, won’t they leave town? Won’t they move to Lexington, or Weston or Concord?

AF: Let them. Let people who are in a position to pay more taxes pay more taxes.

B2: Full day kindergarten has been a hot topic on Bloggingbelmont and in the town recently. My understanding is that the School Committee is going to put funding for full day kindergarten in their FY 08 budget. What’s your position on that?

AF: I don’t think the School Committee will put it in the budget for this year.

B2: Oh really? My sense from last week’s School Committee meeting was that they would.

AF: Let me put it this way. It’s in the interest of the School Committee to not put it in the budget for this year. What’s in the budget for this year is an override for the Wellington School. I support a debt exclusion for the Wellington School, but oppose an operational override and funding for the roads and a debt exclusion for the Wellington. Last time around, I got around 150 emails from parents of kids who were gong into kindergarten supporting full day kindergarten. But I also got a number of emails from parents of children in high school saying ‘if we add the $350,000 for full day kindergarten, what will that do to my child’s programs? They don’t give a (expletive) about kids in kindergarten.

B2: Don’t you find it a sad statement. That we’ve got a community that’s so deeply divided, that parents of high school children could only think about a program for kindergartners in terms of what it would take away from their child’s education?

AF: It is sad. We are all one community, but we’ve got to recognize that we can’t do everything that we might want to do for every person. We’ve got to find the right balance. And I think the right balance is where we’re at. I don’t think there’s anything out of balance at this point. I don’t think we’re spending too much money on anything..except maybe buildings.

B2: What do you think your role as a Selectman is in all this?

AF: What I can do as a Selectman in Belmont is to try to make Belmont the best community it can be, given all the benefits the town has to offer. I want to make sure that the town is in balance. That the poor and the rich people have a reason to stay. That the people who care about education have a reason to stay, and make this the best possible overall community that we can have. I can try to make sure that nobody is being neglected by someone else, number one. Number two: when residents look at the way the town operates. The elected officials, department heads. The whole thing. I want the people of Belmont to say hard working people run this town and be confident that they’re making the best decisions for this town.

Up next…”I’m a reasonable guy. How can I support the building of a senior center across the street when I know we need a new Library?”

Firenze: Belmont’s come a long way, baby!

This is the first installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. It is the first installment of B2’s “In the Mix,” a recurring feature that will profile a town resident who is helping to shape the future of our town. Keep coming back to B2 for more In the Mix interviews.
Angelo Firenze
I had the opportunity to meet town Selectman Angelo Firenze at a neighborhood barbecue last summer and came away intrigued. I knew, once I launched B2, that I wanted to interview him for the new town blog. For one thing, Angelo loves to talk — as anyone who has met him can attest. And he has a way of holding court when doing so that can kind of sweep you along. More important: as one of just three town Selectmen, Firenze’s opinions and priorities matter — big time.
After a brief exchange of e-mails, Angelo and I arranged a Saturday morning interview at the ca. 1910 home on Clover St. where Angelo’s family moved in 1952, when he was 10 years old. I had slated 30 minutes for a Q&A, which was laughable. Things were just getting going 90 minutes later when urgent phone calls to get my butt back home ended the talk.
In our wide ranging interview, Firenze weighed in on a variety of topics — from his hopes for Belmont’s future, to the financial challenges facing the town in the coming years. From the challenges of being a Selectman, to building a new Wellington School, to the prospects for funding full day kindergarten, or the construction of a new library. I’ll bring you excerpts from my interview with Angelo Firenze over the next couple days. Stay tuned, as well, for future In the Mix interviews!
B2: You grew up in town before settling down here with your family. How has the changed since you were young?
Angelo Firenze: Things have changed a lot. Back then, there was a lot of ‘us and them’ — more than there is today — between the hill and the rest of town. You know, Belmont is an incredibly diverse community. There’s economic diversity, racial diversity, educational diversity, and there’s no dominant segment. You’ve got a lot of everybody and not too much of anybody…It’s one of the beauties of Belmont and one of the assets of the town. But when I was growing up, as an example, the Kendall School was where the town field is now — a few hundred yards from here. But I went to the Burbank school, which was 1.2 miles from here, because the feeling was that the kind of people who lived in this neighborhood should go to Burbank. Today, that would never happen. A close friend of mine in Belmont is Jewish and told me that his family had tried to buy a house on Kilburn road and was told that that was not a neighborhood where Jews would be allowed.
Speaking personally, my family was one of the few Italian families in the neighborhood and we were, by far, a minority. And you felt that. You knew that. I remember my dad used to make me lunch for school, and he’d make these very typical Italian sandwiches with peppers and eggs on Scali bread. And you had this oily pepper and eggs. It was to die for, but he’d put it in a brown paper bag, and by the time you got to school, the bag would be soaked in oil. I’d sit there at lunch and guys would say “Firenze, do you have another one of those I-talian sandwiches again?” And I’d feel so self conscious. These guys would offer me half of their bologna sandwich on Wonder bread for my sandwich and, like a dope, I’d do it.
B2: How was the town different politically?
AF: It was totally different. Politically, back then, the town was really run by the Belmont Citizens’ Committee. In order to get elected to any position in town, you needed to get their approval. They’d put your name on a yellow card and that was how you’d get elected. Beyond that, the town was run for many years by James Watson Flett. He ruled town with an iron fist. He was very conservative…a very bright guy, but there was a lot of divisiveness on board (of Selectmen) for many years.
B2: Isn’t that a good thing?
AF: Divisiveness? No. Diversity is a good thing. We’ve got one of the most diverse boards of selectmen in this town’s history right now.
B2: You’re joking, right?
AF: Well, I mean, we’re three retired white men, that’s true, but we couldn’t be more different. Dr. (Paul) Soloman and I don’t agree on anything. His perspective and mine are different. What’s common among us is that we’re all trying to do what’s right for the town. There aren’t any personal agendas.
B2: How has Dan Leclerc joining the board changed things?
AF: Dan is a lot more similar to Paul than I am. He’s changed things. For the first time in a long time, we first time for a long time we don’t have a lawyer on board, and that’s a good thing. We don’t have a lot of experience on the board. Paul’s served six years, I’ve served three and Dan one. When Paul retires, I’ll be the senior member with three years of service. You used to have people who served for 22 years.
(Firenze is interrupted by a phone call from a town resident.)
B2: How many of those calls do you get a day?
AF: Around three or four. Clearly, when it snows I get a lot more.
B2: What do people want to talk to you about?
AF: Parking. Complaints about parking — the way people are permitted to park. Why is there a two hour space? Why do we let commuters park there? Why can’t we put up a two hour parking sign, but then when you put it up, they’re upset because they can’t park in front of their house all day long any more. There’s no solution no matter what you do. Then snow storms. In one particular storm, I got two calls from people on the same street, one to complain that the plows weren’t coming enough and the other to complain that they were coming too often.
B2: Could you explain a bit about what a Selectman does? I don’t think a lot of residents really know.
AF: It’s funny, I was on town meeting for 15 years before I became a Selectman and I don’t think I had any appreciation for how the committees work. We’d get reports from different places, but I don’t think I really appreciated how they came together. Basically, if look, from a business perspective, at the organization of the town of Belmont, and try to draw an organizational chart of how the town functions, I’m not sure anyone could do it. Ultimately people are responsible to the voters. Town meeting is the
governing form of the town. But Belmont residents also vote for individual positions too — we have an independently elected Treasurer and Town Clerk, an independently elected Board of Assessors and School Committee. Board of Health, Cemetery Commissions, Board of Library Trustees. The Selectmen have no influence over those positions. The only influence we have is over the budget. We can make a recommendation on the budget, but the final decision on the budget goes back to Town Meeting. The Warrant Committee is appointed by the Town Moderator and its job is to opine about issues facing the town. But they advise the Town Meeting on budgetary issues facing the town, so the budget that gets presented is the Warrant Committee budget. In my ideal world, the budget would be prepared and generated by the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee should opine on that. Where the Selectmen do have power is if there’s not enough money levied by the town to cover all the items in the budget. Only the Board of Selectmen can call for a (budget) override.
B2: Give our readers a “State of the Town” report — in your mind, anyway.
AF: (Pausing for a loooonnng time…) I have an optimistic view of the town. I was very pleasantly surprised when I become Selectmen at how well run the town is, given the conditions. There’s a lot to complain about, sure. The roads, the schools. If you want to bitch about things, you can find stuff. But when you look at our lack of a commercial base, or the lack of State aid for the town, I’m amazed at how well run the town is, given those limitations. The State looks at us and says ‘You’re a wealthy community,’ because they’re taking the average price of a single family home and an average income. We’re 10th from the bottom of the 351 or so communities receiving state aid. The state average is something like $3,400 a student. We receive under $1,000 a student in aid. Some communities are getting $11,000 or $12,000 a student. But with Belmont, you’ve got just under 10,000 dwellings. Fifty five percent are in multi-family housing. Forty five percent are single family houses. But you’ve got a high number of very wealthy people, but 20% of the population that’s making two times the poverty level or less. So you’ve got Mitt Romney up on the hill making $30 million a year and some guy earning two times the poverty rate, and the average income is still up in the millions. I was just in Chelsea and drove by the new Chelsea High School. Everett has a new High School — a $100 million building. Lincoln Sudbury has one. You can look and say ‘Our (spending) per student is low,’ but what makes Belmont fantastic is the nature of the community.
B2: And the quality of our teachers and administration.
AF: Yeah. But there are great teachers that work in those towns, too. I bet if you picked up everyone who works in Chelsea and sent everyone who works in Belmont to Chelsea to teach, you wouldn’t see a marked difference. The big contributor is the environment in which that happens. Belmont High School science labs may be inadequate, but its got one of the prettiest locations of any high school in the state and the learning environment in which kids are learning is what’s really special.
(Up next: “Could we spend more money on schools? Sure. But should we?”

Time to roll up your sleeves: Flu Clinic today!

Just a note to the B2 community that there’s a Flu Clinic today from 3:00pm to 5:00pm at the BHS Cafeteria, according to a notice posted on the town Web Site.  You’ve got to be 18 years old to go. Shots cost $3.00, but Medicare B patients can have it billed, according to the notice.

In other business, stay tuned this week for the first installment in B2’s “In the Mix” segment — where we profile town residents who are shaping the future of our community. First up in our In the Mix segment: Selectman Angelo Firenze.

Question of the day: what’s up with the sidewalk clearing plows that make the sidewalks you’ve already shoveled suddenly impassable? Has anyone else noticed this?

Will holiday shopping get blown away?

Winter hit the Town of Homes hard again on Sunday, with snow, sleet, wind and rain. In contrast to last Thursday’s storm, however, the cleanup was an orderly affair, with most Belmont residents, it seems, content to stay off the road and let the snow plows do their job.

The high winds did play havoc with downtown holiday decorations in Belmont, with at least one string of holiday lights lying in a heap on the ground as a result of the high winds. But with the bad weather expected to last all day, and a Patriots game keeping most of us glued to the tube, this Sunday might be a write off for Belmont’s downtown shops — with only one shopping weekend left in the holiday shopping season — and that’s not good.

According to Boston.com, the next 24 hours will bring more rain and colder temperatures, meaning that any snow that isn’t shoveled up might be with you ’till March. 😉 Get moving!

If you’ve got pictures of the ‘Noreaster from your neighborhood, send them along to paul@bloggingbelmont.com and I’ll post them to B2!

Noreaster hits BelmontMore snow madness in downtown BelmontLeonard Street in storm