Letter to the Editor: Support Minuteman on Sept. 20

Photo: Image of the interior of a proposed Minuteman school building.

To the editor:

I’m asking Belmont residents to join me in voting “yes” to support the financing of a new Minuteman school building on Sept. 20.

Some of our local leaders have raised issues about Minuteman. Some say that we can avoid financing the new school and continue to send our kids there. But we won’t be sending our kids to Minuteman if the vote on financing fails. Others say that we can send our kids to other vocational schools. But no specifics have been offered, and there is no plan, just wishful thinking. Some say that Minuteman represents a broken model because many attendees go to college. We want our kids to go to college if they can and to get good jobs if they can’t and this is the role of modern vocational education.

Why does Belmont need to help finance a new school? Minuteman’s current campus was constructed in the 1970’s and needs replacement or costly repairs. Masonry is cracking and buckling. The roof needs to be replaced. The building is not up to ADA compliance standards and is not suited for modern instructional approaches. In fact, the building is at risk of being condemned. If the building is not replaced, repairs are estimated to cost almost as much as the construction of a new building, but would fail to solve many of its problems.

Replacing Minuteman’s school building to meet current enrollment will cost $144 million, of which the state has pledged $44 million. Ten Minuteman district towns, including Belmont, will share the remainder. The state also is imposing a capital fee to ensure that any non-member towns sending kids to Minuteman will pay a fair share. Belmont’s cost is estimated to be $335,000, something that our town can easily afford. One member of our Warrant Committee has suggested that the annual cost to the average Belmont household would be equivalent to ordering a few take-out pizzas.

Some claim that the financing approach carries risk. For example, the other nine Minuteman district towns could all file for bankruptcy, leaving Belmont on the hook for the entire cost. This is as likely as space aliens zapping nine communities out of existence. More realistically, Belmont could face a slightly higher financing cost, perhaps as much as $500,000 a year, if the state does not set the capital fee for non-member towns high enough. We need to lobby the state to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Some argue that the new school will be too big and that it should be radically downsized to exclude non-member towns’ students. There’s just no good argument for this, and the state of Massachusetts will not contribute to a construction plan that does not build to current enrollment.

We need Minuteman to succeed. It’s a critical educational resource. We have to do something for our kids who are not going to college to help them succeed. In fact, the state mandates that we provide vocational education for those wanting it.  But Belmont High School just isn’t equipped to provide vocational training, and we cannot afford to provide these kinds of programs on our own.  Some kids need more and different kinds of attention and instructional approaches to doing well. Minuteman has a student to teacher ratio about half that of Belmont High School. Belmont High School just isn’t equipped to give that kind of attention to kids who need it.

Won’t you show your support for Minuteman on Sept. 20? Please join me in voting “yes.” Polls open at noon.

Michael F. Crowley

Belmont Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8

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Comments

  1. Martin Plass says

    I strongly agree with Vera and urge everyone to vote YES! We need to maintain access for our less academically high-flying children to go to Minuteman and get a good hands-on quality education. My son did exceedingly well there in Environmental Science and I believe that the Minuteman learning approach would benefit many many of our children, even those that can manage BHS.

    Voting No and withdrawing from the district has big risks. We will lose guaranteed access for our students and we will loose the ability to control and influence the future direction of MM.

    And yes, we will be freeloading on the other in-district towns for a few years until they kick us out and we have to send our kids far away or build our own vocational program in Belmont. Let’s keep the expense in perspective: The capital expense for the new school of $350-500k is less than 1% of our annual school budget of roughly $50M. It seems to me that we should be able to afford this and not be so cheap to have other district towns pay this for us. This extra cost could also be eaten up quickly if we have to send just a few more kids to specialized private schools at $100k each that coudl have managed otherwise at Minuteman.

    Voting No seems very short-sided and anyone claiming that they fully support vocational education yet vote against Minuteman seems hypocritical in my opinion.

    Let’s stick by our earlier commitment to stay in the district, get a new school built and work on making the tuition equitable and ensure good management and future for Minuteman.

  2. says

    Mike, at the Warrant Committee meeting last Wednesday, we had a two hour discussion about the risks and affordability of the Minuteman debt proposal in our current situation – given all that has transpired since Town Meeting. I wish it was possible to every voter to participate in that meeting.

    For me, it comes down to this: $335K (or likely $500K, once the best-case scenario does not materialize) is NOT something we can easily afford. You liken it to a few pizzas. That assumes that residents pass a 30 year tax increase (i.e. debt exclusion) to pay for it. But I do not believe residents are going to agree to raise their taxes for the Minuteman debt. One year ago, we passed a large override. We have another debt exclusion in the offing for the high school. When this debt exclusion fails, we will have to absorb it in our operating budget – a half million of our override dollars. That’s not a few pizzas. Our override dollars need to last as long as possible – that is what we promised residents and that is the commitment we need to uphold.

    Once the budget squeeze hits (prematurely), we will very quickly come to regret a decision to accept this uncapped Minuteman debt obligation. But by then, it will be too late.

    • Roy Epstein says

      I take responsibility for the pizza comparison. But last spring when I spoke at Town Meeting I was under the impression that DESE would commit to a fair capital charge of approximately $8,400 per student to be paid by non-member towns. That may not be the case. DESE has not announced its intentions so far..

      Without a commitment to a fair capital charge the responsible course is to vote no on Sept. 20. Still, it may make sense to remain in the district–it is too early to tell. See my separate letter to the Belmontonian this week.

    • Michael Crowley says

      Ellen,

      Of course I followed the Warrant Committee discussion online at the Belmont Media Center, as any voter could (and still can). I’ve spent months researching the Minuteman issue, so I know a good deal about it, and I did not find the discussion compelling.

      I appreciate your point of view. Yet, I do not accept that Belmont’s cost for financing a portion of the Minuteman project is extravagant or prohibitive. Nor is it clear that a debt exclusion is necessary to pay for it. Belmont does not have boundless resources. At the same time, there are steps we can take to better manage within our existing resources and augment revenue. I would recommend that and good public policy on vocational and technical education, rather than embrace a position that merely saves Belmont a little money over the next few years.

      Recommending a “no” vote really obligates us to put a plan before Belmont voters that shows how our students will have continued access to high quality career-focused secondary education. We have no such plan. If we intend to exit the district and continue to send Belmont students to Minuteman as a non-member town, we fail to ensure equivalence with the status quo ante. Students from non-member towns have the last choice for vocational programs and often won’t be able to enroll in the programs of their choosing. Our kids will be shut out from the high demand, innovative programs that make Minuteman unique – programs like robotics, biotechnology, and environmental sciences. If our intention is to send our students to other vocational schools, we currently have no information on the availability or equivalence of these programs.

      It’s also misleading to refer to the Minuteman financing plan as an “uncapped debt obligation”. Any financing plan for capital infrastructure carries a certain amount of risk, whether we’re talking about just Belmont or a multi-town district. However, we analyze such risk by making reasonable assumptions and using sensitivity analysis to probe the likelihood of extreme outcomes. We don’t seize on the extreme but unlikely outcomes and qualify that as serious risk. To argue that Belmont’s debt obligation for Minuteman will be completely uncapped requires embracing the unlikeliest of scenarios. I don’t think that’s a message that helps Belmont voters decide anything.

      Mike

  3. John Bowe says

    I don’t think opponents of the project, as presented, are opposed to vocational education. It’s the funding model.

    Replacing Minuteman with a building that accommodates *twice* the enrollment from member towns is $144M. We’re being asked to subsidize non-member towns, by a lot. And the Minuteman’s operating budget has always been a *lot* higher than other similar schools across the state. If the funds requested from us were even close to what other districts pay, you’d get a lot more support.

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