Photo: Adam Dash (left) and Raffi Manjikian at the Candidates’ Night.
It’s alway smart to have a prop on hand to make your point.
To demonstrate the necessity of the $4.5 million override to be decided by Belmont voters at Town Election on April 7, Yes for Belmont’s Adam Dash brought a threadbare textbook without its cover and a slab of asphalt to the lectern at Candidates’ Night on Thursday, March 26.
“Let’s be clear what voting no means,” said Dash, holding up “an actual level service quality text book” along with a piece from “my street,” before more than 100 residents attending the Belmont League of Women Voters’ sponsored event at the Chenery Middle School.
“We will see more and more of this,” said Dash, a member of the Warrant Committee for the past six years.
“We are not going to fix his by nibbling around the edges. I’m sorry, but this will cost money, it just does,” Dash told the audience, which were favorable deposed to his argument as noted by dozens who stood in a steady rain holding orange “Yes for Belmont” signs.
Yet Raffi Manjikian, the treasurer of the resident’s committee opposing the override, spurning the request for additional taxes to pay for skyrocketing enrollment and added expenses is not an anti-school vote, pointing out he has four children attending Belmont schools.
Rather, a no vote would be a rejection of “bad assumptions” – such as being “too conservative” in estimates of revenue and expenses – made in a year-long analysis of town finances by the Financial Task Force, which recommended “this mega override.”
“We voters have been given an unfair choice of a $4.5 million override. It’s not all or nothing; there are alternatives and the time to get the job done,” he said in his opening statement.
A “no” vote would give “an unambiguous message to our leadership to get back to the table, sharpen their pencils and manage our public finances wisely,” said Manjikian.
Yet to Dash and the “yes” supporters, a “no” vote transmits “is a bad sign to the people and a bad sign to the kids that we are not willing to do step one” for them.
The night of answering questions – it was hardly a debate in the truest sense – allowed each side to push their positions to residents. While the Yes campaign has been active in Belmont for nearly a month with rallies, meetings, and mailings, Thursday’s meeting was the “nos” first opportunity to explain its argument disputing claims that $4.5 million is the right amount.
It didn’t take long for the most telling comment to be uttered, coming at the very start during Manjikian’s highlighted the main reasons the “No” committee opposes the ballot question, suggesting the “No” committee’s motivation is as much political and procedural as it is fiscal.
“This year the town leadership choose to leap frog over the usual budget process calling for an override before we deliberated on the budget,” said Manjikian, referring to the Warrant Committee’s oversight mission. Several members of the “No” group are current or former members of the committee which serves as the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog.
In fact, the “No” Committee is not opposed to the concept of an override; it would seek to work towards a “right sized” measure that would meet department and schools needs, but only after a “budget committee,” whose work would come under Warrant Committee scrutiny, narrowed the $1.7 million funding gap facing the schools in the 2016 fiscal year.
During the question and answer portion, when residents addressed the representatives, Dash defended the override as the only sensible way of closing a deficit that could see more than 22 full-time equivalent positions cut from the schools, the ending of advanced art courses, the increase in class sizes and providing the bare minimum of classes to 11th and 12th grade students.
Pointing to neighboring towns such as Lexington, Concord and Acton, which has passed numerous overrides since Belmont’s last in 2002, Dash said, “they understand that sometimes things cost more … than 2 1/2 percent a year.”
Manjikian countered “money doesn’t solve the problems,” saying Belmont’s “achievement oriented” parents, students and teachers will continue to make it a successful system.
Rather than revenue, cutting expenses is required, specifically educators pay which is the “biggest driver of the school system,” he said.
When asked by a resident to name the specific cuts to the schools, Dash said the reductions have been clearly spelled out by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan from major cuts to staff, extra free time and two of three classrooms above recommended enrollment numbers.
“It’s getting ridicules,” said Dash. “If we vote yes, you can have everything that you have now … or you can vote no and all these cuts are going to happen,” said Dash.
Manjikian said if the “no” vote prevails, “it would be in the best interest of the community to bring all the leaders back to the table much like we do in the budget process to look where additional revenue and addition expenses that get realigned and maintain the needs of the schools.”
While Manjikian discussed creating a multi-year plan to finance capital projects such as a new High School as well as annual educational needs, Dash said $4.5 million override is seen by the Financial Task Force and supporters as a long-range financing measure for the schools and the community.
In their closing remarks, Manjikian said a no vote would allow the town to explore “alternatives” to an override that will double from an average $854 per household in a decade.
Dash said Belmont has said “no” for far too long on infrastructure and now the schools.
“The great English philosopher John Lennon once said, ‘Yes is the Answer.'” said Dash.