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To the editor:
A new Minuteman High School is essential for Belmont. We should vote YES in the Sept. 20 election.
I changed my mind on this vote because Belmont won a major victory this week. DESE, the state agency that oversees all public schools, finally did the right thing this past Thursday [Sept. 15] and set a capital charge that is fair for the member towns. This answers nearly all of the criticisms of the building project. With the capital charge resolved, it is time for Belmont to approve the debt for a new school and remain a member town.
The opponents of the debt argued through the spring and summer that the proposed new school is too large for the member towns and DESE could not be trusted to set a fair capital charge. This argument is no longer valid.
Belmont will pay the same capital charge even if we became a non-member town. That is the outcome we demanded, an equal per-student amount for the cost of the new building. DESE has accepted this principle with a small adjustment for non-member towns that already provide a significant level of vocational/tech programs.
In recent weeks the opponents of the debt have changed their focus. They now seem to be making the vote a referendum on the tuition charged to non-member towns for operating expenses. By leaving the district, they say Belmont will save money even with the fair capital charge because the non-member towns pay lower tuition.
The new regional agreement as discussed in Town Meeting allows a district to withdraw, subject to unanimous approval by the remaining members, to avoid the debt obligation. Tuition was not the reason for this provision.
Non-member towns are a part of Minuteman. This not ideal but it reflects circumstances unique to this district. The practical difficulties in getting new towns to join as members may be solvable in the future.
If Belmont pays less in tuition, the remaining member towns have to pay more. It is a zero sum game at that point and I do not support shifting costs to our neighbors in this way. The amount at stake is something we can afford. In a perfect world of equalized tuition, Belmont might save $150,000 when our total town budget is over $100 million.
In addition, leaving the district is not automatic even if Town Meeting votes to withdraw. The remaining member towns also have to vote unanimous approval for Belmont’s exit. Reduced to a naked economic calculation, they have an incentive to deny a request to leave.
A member of Arlington’s Finance Committee has already signaled that Belmont can expect opposition to an exit request. Withdrawal is probably not the windfall that some have intimated.
There should be a thorough debate over tuition for non-member towns but it should not be used to avoid approving the debt. If Belmont withdraws, our economic incentive will be to free-ride on a flawed tuition policy. Instead, the right course is to remain in the district and help lead that debate. That debate should also include how to make sure Minuteman is run efficiently and controls its operating costs.
Belmont won the big battle over the capital charge. I urge you to vote yes on Sept. 20.