Letter to the Editor: An Insider’s Reason for Vote ‘Yes’ on the Override

Photo: Yes campaigners.
To the editor:
We all have been inundated with reasons for and against the override vote on April 7.  I’ve see the needs as a resident and an insider, as a parent and a decision maker.
I have lived in Belmont for 19 years, and on either side of Belmont for another nine.  My six years on Belmont’s School Committee (which included, as the School Committee rep, two years on Warrant Committee and two on Capital Budget Committee) have given an enlightening view into many parts of town government. I’ve been lucky enough to work with professionals in Town Hall, School Administration Building, and each of the schools, I and am sometimes awed by what they can produce for us with limited resources.
Here are the key points that make me an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed override:
Big Picture on School Spending
I’m a fan of allocating a reasonable amount of resources for a given function, then letting the professionals manage within that limit.  Clearly, Belmont Public Schools’ per-pupil spending shows that we get a lot of value for our money. It is about 12 percent below state average and far less than nearby towns such as Newton, Lexington, and Watertown. The state Dept of Ed breaks that spending into major categories, where we can see that our per-pupil spending on teachers is 11 percent below state average and administration is a whopping 30 percent below. Yes, 30. To me this negates squawking from the “no” side about some individual teacher salaries being high.  Yes, some are indeed high. But some are low for what we get. Most are within reason for the professional tasks they do – just like at my own company, and probably yours.
Financial Task Force Cred
One of Belmont’s faults over the past few decades is its lack of planning and reluctance to look ahead, whether for finance or infrastructure. The Financial Task Force, appointed in 2013, is a serious effort address exactly that. Members should be applauded, and their findings taken seriously. This override is a reasonable step to address Belmont’s needs. Names like Paolillo, Carmen and Mahoney are hardly associated with irresponsible spending or caving to special interests.  The additional money won’t fix everything – it is necessary, but not sufficient – and there is still a ton of work to do across Town and Schools for the long-term well-being of our entire community, kids and adults, infrastructure and people.
The “No” Side
I should know better than to be surprised by the ideological intransigence of the “No” side, but I still am.  From my six years on School Committee, and observations the years after, this summarizes the patterns I see from some individuals who are or were on the Warrant Committee:
The disregard of the FTF’s findings is very disappointing, and even disrespectful. It seems they’ve chosen to simply ignore the facts, even in their rhetoric. But then they are trying to position themselves as the eventual saviors, sharpening pencils and tightening belts, or whatever trite phrasing you want. It is as if the professionals who work for the town have not tried and do not know their jobs better than those Warrant Committee members. Every committee has wanted the thorough, factual look that the FTF has produced, and I assume the No side did too.  But I think they did not get the answer they wanted, and are now ignoring and talking over the findings.
The Warrant Committee is often called the “fiscal watchdog,” but too often some want to micromanage departments’ internal spending, and even intrusively try to manage policy. For schools, I have seen them question curriculum offerings, like whether to offer art at all (since it’s not required by the state), advanced language classes, and even support for college counselors. 
Please join me in voting Yes on April 7.
John Bowe
Elizabeth Rd
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  1. Dawn MacKerron says

    Neither committee disagrees on funding Education in Belmont. The Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee has expressed to the Selectmen and to the school leadership that Belmont needs to and will support the School Superintendent’s identified budgets – no reason to question. This has also been presented and stated in the public meetings. The Vote No group supports 5 of the 6 recommendations by the FTF, for which the Board of Selectmen publicly thanked them. However, there is strong disagreement on the FTF’s analysis of next year’s revenue projections. The Selectmen have stated that their Revenue projections for next year are admittedly “conservative”. In a growth economy, it seems unreasonable to have projected next year’s revenue growth at half of what Belmont has averaged for the past 10 years. Use of this “conservative” number in the budgeting process is where much of the projected deficit comes from. The Vote No group also raises the concern that out of a 177 page report only 6 pages have any mention of cost containment. The “Projected” town revenues show a $1.7MM Education deficit next year. How we resolve this is where the difference lies.

    The Vote No group urges the Town’s leadership to manage a budget that is fiscally responsible. Absent a clear financial roadmap, the $4.5MM Mega Override is more than the town needs next year and it is Permanent. After the first year (of which 1/2 the amount is undesignated), the Un-Used Portion of the Money from the Override goes in to a “Stabilization Fund”. That stabilization fund does not exist until Town Meeting votes to approve such a fund. Is anyone comfortable that you will see that money spent where we’d like it to be spent? Don’t we want to see Accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent? The MEGA $4.5MM Override is an excessive amount to ask the taxpayers for in relation to the need. Let’s remember how towns operate – they budget year to year while having long range planning alongside. This is the responsible and accountable way to run things. Providing a large, ongoing bank account to draw from “as needed” for “TBD” throws Accountability out the window.

    Had a reasonable override tied to actual need been put forth in the first place, there would not even be a Vote No Committee. The real risk to the schools/education department was the decision to put forth a bloated, unnecessary, permanent Mega Override that has a true risk of being defeated rather than a fiscally responsible one that would easily guarantee we give the Superintendent what he needs to continue his fine work.

    The Vote No position has stated publicly that if the override fails they will work together immediately to close the Education gap (est. 3-6 weeks). The Vote No committee has seasoned veterans who have worked on the budget at the line-by-line detail level. Not one person on the Vote No committee has any interest to present to the Town an irresponsible position that “the sky is falling” to the public. On the contrary we have been quite public that our perspective is that Belmont needs an informed presentation of the facts with a balanced approach. Not rhetoric that employs scare tactics and hatred of fellow residents.

    With building projects on the horizon that include a high school, DPW, police station, etc., we cannot accept a Mega Override without a long-term plan that serves as a roadmap and arrives at a destination of a Town that values excellent public services.

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