Town Election: Rink Rings Up Big Victory On Its Second Chance; Zuccarello, Yueh On School Committee; Appointed Treasurer Measure Passes 2-1

Photo: (from left) Select Board Chair Mark Paolillo, Rink Building Committee Chair Mark Haley, and Building Committee members Dante Muzzioli and Anne Marie Mahoney speaking on the passage of the debt exclusion for a new municipal rink and recreation center for Belmont.

This past Nov. 8, it appeared the proposal to replace the existing ‘Skip’ Viglirolo Skating Rink was all but dead and buried when a $33 million debt exclusion to build a new rink facility failed in the general election by approximately 350 votes out of 11,800 cast.

But a lifeline tossed by the Select Board that night to give the measure many believed would pass if provided a rare second bite at the apple proved prophetic as the new rink/recreation center project was given an enthusiastic thumbs up as the modified $29.9 million project was approved by nearly 1,500 votes, 3,904 to 2,421.

Get unofficial results from the April 4 election at the Town Clerk’s web page here

“Feels great,” said Mark Haley, chair of the Municipal Skating Rink Building Committee, as he and committee member Dante Muzzioli, nervously watched as the votes trickled in while they camped out in the lobby of the Select Board Room on the second floor of Town Hall. “Once given a chance to tell our story, I knew residents would be back it.”

“The town … understands how important this rink and recreation facility was for this town, and they supported it,” said Muzzioli. “It’s a beautiful day for Belmont.”

Muzzioli praised the three leaders of the “Yes For Rink” campaign – Sheryl Grace, Lucinda Zuniga, and Kayla Wiggin – as “the reason the question passed. They worked and worked and got it done.”

“Shows that hard work pays off, for sure. We had to come back for our kids,” said Zuniga, who arrived with Wiggin and Grace at Town Hall to celebrate the news. The “Yes” campaign raised $1.3 million while conducting an effective campaign based on getting the facts about the rink to the public.

(from left) Sheryl Grace, Lucinda Zuniga and Kayla Wiggin

And many on the building committee noted that Select Board Chair Mark Paolillo was one of the “heroes” of the campaign as he led the board in reviving the project after its initial defeat.

“A three hundred vote margin is not a mandate, especially with the library being on the same ballot,” said Paolillo. “It was only fair to allow it to go before the voters again.”

Rink Reasons

The rink supporters pointed to several changes that helped convince voters to support the project after its defeat. First, unlike in November, the rink was not coupled on the ballot with another large capital project, a new $34.5 million public library. There was some evidence that voters in November felt they were limited to selecting between the library and the rink.

Second, the building committee and the project architect, Ted Galante of The Galante Architecture Studio, abandoned an array of costly features, such as the second-floor mezzanine, and went with an all-new design which reduced the price tag by 10 percent, showing a willingness to make alterations to reduce the amount taken up by ratepayers.

Third, the rink was turned into a four-season operation in which up to five months would be dedicated to town recreation and other activities.

Fourth, rink campaigners used the time to explain in greater detail the failings of the existing building and the expanded uses a new rink will have. The initial campaign was hampered by too many balls in the air: a need to design and price the project and galvanize supporters that were squeezed into a four-month schedule during which the final cost fluctuated, and there was no firm commitment to making the facility recreation friendly.

And it didn’t hurt that the current rink’s defects caused numerous problems this season, including a nearly month-long delay in opening the rink due to warm weather and that 5,000 fewer voters came to the polls.

Haley said important work and decisions still need to be completed, including how the rink will be managed and receiving approval from Town Meeting this May for the funding for the facility.

Demolition of the existing rink will begin in July with a 16-18 month construction schedule.

“Be back here in November 2024!” said Haley.

Treasurer’s Question

Town officials, the leading committees, and the Select Board all backed a Collins Center recommendation changing the Town Treasurer from an elected to an appointed position toward centralizing the town’s financial operations.

While many residents expressed concern that an appointed treasurer would be beholden to the Town Administrator rather than the public, others pointed out that many essential town functions are led by appointed employees and officials and that many similar communities to Belmont have or are moving to the appointed treasurer post.

And with no candidate running to claim the seat, establishing an appointed treasurer position was not seriously challenged. It was accepted by a more than two-to-one margin: 4,255 to 1,811.

School Committee

In a rather tepid race – the three candidates were in-line with nearly all initiatives before the school committee – life-long Belmont resident Amy Zuccarello topped the field with 4,055 votes She’ll be joined on the committee by Jung Yueh (3,306). Rounding out the contest was Rachel Watson, who garnered 2,140 votes.

“We must hit the ground running on many items, including the current and next year’s budget. But I am excited to get started,” said Yueh, who attended the vote counting at Town Hall.

Jung Yueh at Town Hall

Town Meeting

Some would think that being an 18-year-old, first-time candidate would be detrimental to winning a seat on Town Meeting. But if you get profiled in a daily newspaper, produce a slick website, have yourself photographed with the governor, and knock on a hell-of-a-lot-of doors (while having the best name this election cycle), you too could be like Angus James Benedict Abercrombie, who hit it out of the park Tuesday nearly receiving the most votes throughout the eight precincts with 544. Only Susanne Croy in Precinct 6 bested Abercrombie with 546. Abercrombie’s final vote tally reminds election observers of perennial Boston City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who said, “You don’t count my votes; you weigh them.”

In Precinct 1, a pair of newbies took the top spots. Adam Dash, who stepped down from the Select Board this year, is better known than Makinde Abeagbo, but the first-time candidate finished with 446 votes to Dash’s 443.

Incumbents who were not successful in their races include Joseph Wholley and Christopher Grande in Precinct 1, John Alcock and Ian Watson in 3, Linda Oates and Cabell Eames in 6, 25-year Town Meeting member Brett Sorenson and Natalie Kostich in 7, and Connor Maguire and the Ivesters – Heather and Karl – from 8.

Returning to Town Meeting after a forced one-year absence include Marie Warner in Precinct 6, who took a two-year seat by two votes, and Robert Sarno in Precinct 3.

Not placing your profile in the Belmont League of Women Voters Election Guide isn’t a big deal? In competitive precincts, those who left out their profile did not place in the top 12, including well-known incumbents.

Vote! Town Election 2023 Is Tuesday, April 4; All You Need To Know

Photo: Get your sticker by voting today

Belmont’s annual Town Election is today, Tuesday, April 4!

A list of the candidates for town-wide office and Town Meeting, as well as information on the two ballot questions – for an appointed treasurer and a debt exclusion for a new skating rink/municipal recreation center – can be found in the League of Women Voters guide here.

Registered voters may cast their ballots in person only on Election Day; polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the traditional polling locations: 

  • Precinct One: Belmont Memorial Library, Assembly Room, 336 Concord Ave.
  • Precinct Two: Belmont Town Hall, Select Board Room, 455 Concord Ave.
  • Precinct Three: Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.
  • Precinct Four: Daniel Butler School Gym, 90 White St.
  • Precinct Five: Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.
  • Precinct Six: Belmont Fire Headquarters,  299 Trapelo Rd.
  • Precinct Seven: Burbank School Gym, 266 School St.
  • Precinct Eight: Winn Brook School Gym, 97 Waterhouse Rd., enter from Cross Street.

If you are wondering if you are a registered voter and your voting precinct, go to the Town Clerk’s web page or phone the Town Clerk’s office at 617-993-2600.

Election results will first be announced at Town Hall after the polls close with unofficial results located on the Town Clerk’s website early Wednesday morning.

So-To-Be Select Board Member Elizabeth Dionne: ‘I’ve Had All These Ideas, And I’d Like To Be In The Room Where It Happens’

Photo: Elizabeth Dionne

Elizabeth Dionne doesn’t have an opponent in this year’s town-wide election, so why does it seem like she’s busier than ever?

Having announced her intentions early to run for Adam Dash’s open seat on the Select Board, Dionne quickly cleared the field and is unopposed on the April 4 ballot. But there she was at a campaign event with the three current board members, attending a wide array of public and committee events while meeting with residents across the political spectrum.

What gives?

The Belmontonian met with Dionne in her home on Belmont Hill. The Steinway in Dionne’s front room was being tuned, just in time for her sister, Wendy Harmer, visit to Boston during her performances with Boston Baroque. So the interview took place in her kitchen with Winston, the English bulldog, snoring during his midday nap.

“It’s really not that busy as it has been,” said Dionne, with only her youngest of four children still at home. Still, she admits to putting herself and her ideas and plans out there so those casting ballots aren’t voting for a blank slate, “that they know who I am when they vote.”

Below is the interview with Dionne, edited for length and clarity.

Who is Elizabeth Dionne?

I’m a lot of things. I wear a lot of hats. In the context of Belmont, I am someone who cares deeply about the town and really wants to see it succeed and have a bright future. In the context of family, I’m a mother of four and a sibling of nine out of ten. In the context of work, I started my professional life as a corporate attorney doing corporate finance and then moved to a subset of that which was real estate finance.

And then, I have a son, Eli, who was diagnosed with autism. So step back and became really a full-time advocate for him while raising three other children. As he became more settled and regulated, I realized I didn’t have to go back to corporate work.

And so I decided what was actually more meaningful for me. In my advocacy for Eli, I saw that most people couldn’t afford an attorney. I did some training through both Federation for Children with Special Needs and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and now what I do is represent low-income special needs children who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney.

Seems like you’d be a better as a member of the School Committee.

I am interested in larger issues, and I do care deeply about the schools I’m grateful for the opportunity. My children had to attend Belmont schools. But if we don’t solve our financial problems, there’s not a whole lot left.

What tells you that you could do a good job on Select Board?

First, the time’s right. My youngest child just started college and Select Board is a demanding job. And if you don’t understand that, I think it would come as a shock. The amount of time that’s entailed, so for me, the timing’s right.

And it’s not right just for personal reasons but also because after seven years in Town Meeting, six years on the Warrant Committee, five years on the Community Preservation Committee three years as chair, I do finally feel that I have the breadth of knowledge and experience to push things in a positive future-oriented direction.

And there’s still a lot to learn. I’m not naïve about this. But I feel it at least I have an understanding of how the systems work in a town that has a very quirky kind of governance structure. And it just takes time and multiple cycles of seeing a budget through or multiple cycles of seeing Town Meeting through or multiple cycles of seeing how committee appointments work. Again, I feel that I finally got the experience where I feel comfortable doing a competent job at this.

And then finally, because, especially my work on the Warrant Committee, I understand the town’s fiscal situation, and that it’s problematic and that we have a structural problem to fix. It’s not as if anybody wants an override, but we need an override.

Your father, John L. Harmer, was an influential legislator in California and was Ronald Reagan’s final Lt. Gov. Did coming from that background help you decide to enter the public service?

There’s a family culture of public service. It really really matters to us to be involved.

I have a brother who was a Navy officer for years and did two tours of duty in Iraq. I have a brother who’s CEO of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, and their goal is civic education for both teachers and students. I have a sister who is a legislative director on Capitol Hill for a representative. So it is in our DNA that we serve.

[My father] worked very well across the aisle. And I think people forget that Ronald Reagan spent much of his life as a Democrat. Democrats were not the enemy.

{Reagan’s] best friend in Washington was Tip O’Neill.

And that’s something that I take very, very seriously that there are issues, especially at the local level. Ironically, I have aligned with the progressives on most things because they’re local issues.

If you’re going to be successful [on a local level], it doesn’t work to divide each other into camps. A lot of issues are cross-cutting. I saw a challenge, and for years, I’ve had ideas. And finally thought, this is an opportunity to be in a position where I can actually nudge the town towards some of these ideas. And I do say nudge because I’m one person. You have to work with a lot of people, and you have to be willing to share the work and credit. A lot more can get done when you’re willing to work in a group instead of insisting on going alone.

You will be the first woman on the board since Ann Marie Mahoney almost 20 years ago. And I believe you’ll be the first member of the Latter-Day Saints to be on the Select Board. Is that important?

It is, and it isn’t. What matters to me about being a Latter-Day Saint is a deep sense of integrity and conviction and a really deep commitment to public service. I think we’re quiet; you’re not supposed to toot your own horn. But if you look at involvement in the schools, PTA, or coaching, we’re quietly there. We believe in rolling up our sleeves and getting stuff done. So there’s this very strong ethic of service and public service, but also a very strong ethic of integrity. You do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. You treat people kindly and with respect. Other religions can teach that as well. So that’s why I say it matters and it doesn’t. It informs my approach.

And the first woman in 20 years.

If people see someone who looks like them, whether or not it matters in substance, it can matter as a visual cue that ‘hey, this is open.’ The challenge Belmont has had is that there are a lot of really highly qualified women, but when you ask them about this job, they have said, “not a chance!” So again, it doesn’t matter in terms of the substance that I’m a woman. I think our public servants have served with great integrity. I do think people are just excited to see someone with good qualifications step forward.

At a recent joint meeting, you noted that the community could enter a death spiral if Belmont doesn’t make the right financial decisions in the next two years. What do you mean, and what can be done to forestall or even prevent it from occurring?

I don’t want to be accused of scaremongering, but if anybody has watched the budget summits, you can see the size of the fiscal cliff that we face in fiscal year 2025. And depending on the decisions that we make, we are still looking at an override of between $9 million and the top end of $13 million. It’s an ugly number. If we don’t do something to address that fiscal cliff, how do you make up a $13 million shortfall in an operating budget of approximately $140 million? You’re talking 10 percent cuts. You can’t cut 10 percent across the board and still function as a town. Do we shut the library? Do we shut the senior center? Do we shut down an elementary school? And it’s not going to be one of those, it will be multiples. I do feel like I’ve got to be honest and realistic about what that means to come up with that kind of savings. I don’t call it savings; I will call it cuts. That’s really hard. And it really does put into question what it means to function as a town.

Does Belmont have a revenue problem or do we have an expenditure problem? Do we need more revenue? Many of the population say we will not support it because we know we can cut expenditures.

I really do think that it’s more a revenue problem than an expenditure problem. I also want to be clear that it’s not as if people aren’t paying enough taxes. Some people say, “I’d like to pay more, but I just can’t. I’m gonna have to move out of town”. At that point, it is an expenditure problem if spending drives people out of town.

But we if you compare us to our peer towns, we do spend less per pupil on education. That’s a real number. So you can’t say that we’re overspending on education; we have significantly increased education expenditures. It results from a significant increase in our school’s population and when we have to meet federal and state-mandated requirements for special education and English Language Learners.

What initiatives or policies would you like to see done in your first three years that will begin to change the trajectory of Belmont’s future?

First, we do need to implement a few of the key provisions of the Collins Center Report. The first is the appointed treasurer. I would submit the second is an appointed board of assessors because we need a unified financial policy to address a number of issues in the town. If we don’t have streamlined governance in which we can make policy decisions and implement them, everything else becomes difficult to impossible. I’m not brilliant saying that; that’s what the Colin Center Report said. If we don’t fix our structural problems, we can’t fix our economic problems.

The second thing, and I feel like a broken record, is we have got to address our zoning bylaws, especially on the business end. This month, a bubble tea shop just opened in Belmont Center. The same owner opened in Lexington months ago. They started the application process in both towns at the same time. This is not Belmont Town Hall’s fault. They have to follow an arcane bylaw, and they’re understaffed. We need to clean up the bylaws. We need to fix the staffing problems, and we need to signal very clearly: We’re open for business. We want you.

The third is a successful override, because that is how we bridge our short-term crisis. But to get to a successful override, you’ve got to have two things: You’ve got to have trust, and you’ve got to have hope. I think that will come when we start with a few visible wins, such as changes to the bylaws. We need those because that’s what’s going to build trust.

Late last year, you presented an out-of-the-box proposal for the future development of West Belmont, which would involve the Belmont County Club. Give me your 30 second-elevator pitch.

Looking at a map of Belmont, the southeast portion is incredibly dense, and the Northwest portion is open. If there is going to be any development at Belmont, that is meaningful, it will be in the Northwest. I’m adamant about protecting our current open space, which is zoned for single residents. So this has to be a collective decision. We’re not talking two or three years; we’re talking 10, 15, 20 years, and that’s fine.

But if we don’t start thinking about it now, in 20 years, we’ll still be where we are or worse. And the reason I say, or worse, is the country club is zoned residential single family, so basically set up for McMansions, which is bad for the environment and bad for the town. This isn’t the kind of development that Belmont needs. I think people thought that this proposal was crazy until the country club sold off the land on its Lexington side to build senior housing. I actually think that’s a great use.

And the town would like to see a Microsoft office center there.

The country club is not looking to sell its golf course right now. But they might come in the future. And if we can zone it so that we’re prepared so, we control what happens to it and not them. They could start building single right now and make a gazillion dollars selling the golf course. And I don’t mind them getting wealthy if it means Belmont controls its future. We can actually unilaterally rezone.

But one of the planning board’s mistakes is to rezone without having a developer in mind or consulting with a developer. So I actually think it’s not just the country club you want to talk to. It’s also potential for developers to tell us what would look attractive.

Again, this will all be part of an open process and is going to take a long time. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step. It’s something that honestly I’ve been thinking about for 12 years, and when I first raised it, people, as I said, looked at me like I was insane and now suddenly like, Oh, you’re right.

The town has seen similar high-profile proposals submitted only to be left on the shelf and forgotten.

This is actually part of the reason I wanted to run for Select Board. I’ve had all these ideas, and I’d like to be in the room where it happens. I’d like to be able to influence what that’s worth quoting.

And that’s what switched when people approached me when Adam [Dash] announced that he was retiring in November, saying well, you considered like, and then spent three weeks talking to people, and nobody else would step forward. I initially stepped forward out of a sense of civic obligation, as I have talked to people, it turned into really some guarded optimism and even excitement that there are things that I think we can do.

League Of Women Voters Candidates’ Night, On-Line This Thursday

Photo: The league’s annual candidates’ night.

The Belmont League of Women Voters is holding a virtual Candidates’ Night on Thursday, March 23, at 7 p.m.

The night will start with a video “parade” of Town Meeting Members.

Short speeches and Questions & Answers with each town-wide candidate will follow it.

The night will conclude with information on the two ballot questions: the debt exclusion for a new rink/recreation center and a change from an elected to an appointed town treasurer.

Viewing Options:

Zoom meeting webinar: 893 7026 9526
Live broadcast: Belmont Ch 8 (Comcast); Ch 28 (Verizon)
Livestream or on-demand:

Remember: Town Election Day is Tuesday, April 4.

Belmont’s School Committee Candidates: Amy Zuccarello [VIDEO]

Photo: Amy Zuccarello, candidate for Belmont School Committee

A Belmontian through and through: born, brought up, schooled, and now living in Belmont with her family, Amy Zuccarello is seeking one of two seats on the Belmont School Committee.

Who is Amy Zuccarello?

Amy Zuccarello is a person who gets things done. Amy is a Belmont mom of two who is committed to her family and her community and has always been a champion of Belmont’s public schools. She is a lifelong Belmont resident, a graduate of Belmont schools, and a bankruptcy and financial restructuring lawyer with 20 years of experience working with distressed companies and helping them rebuild. Amy is also the Belmont Girl Scouts service unit coordinator and a former Belmont POMS board member and officer.

Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?

I am the right candidate for Belmont right now. My background and skill set complements the skills and abilities of current committee members. I know that I can make an instant impact to help the town and the schools navigate the current fiscal challenges.  

What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?

I represent companies and other large stakeholders in distressed business situations – where resources are at a premium and there aren’t always enough funds for every item on everyone’s “wish list.”  As a trusted business advisor, it is my job to be able to use resources wisely.  I need to be creative and think outside the box to find ways to solve these problems.  I am also a fair, skilled negotiator.  I pride myself on navigating contentious situations while maintaining the balance between standing my ground on important issues and preserving a good working relationship with all sides going forward.  I also have significant experience working on committees of all types in various contexts.

Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?

In light of current inflation rates alone, I don’t think that this is realistic. The actual answer here depends on many factors we can’t know at the moment. For example, school enrollment isn’t something we can predict with certainty year over year. In addition, the town’s BEA contract contains cost of living increases at about 2.5 percent per year – so personnel costs – which comprise the largest single expense in the school budget – will increase by this amount alone year after year.  In addition, there are some big categories of costs set forth in the school budget that are not discretionary – including the cost of funding ESL programs and out-of-district special education placements.

Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?

Put simply, spend smart.  Whether an override passes or not, we need to maximize efficiencies where possible.  We need to review expenses carefully and be sure that we are asking our community to fund an override that will be sufficient to bring stability to the schools for the foreseeable future. We can only do this while being mindful that our citizens are unlikely to support an override that isn’t backed by reasonable assumptions about what we need to fund the schools sufficiently. If we can restore public confidence in managing the school budget, I believe that our citizens will be more inclined to support an override.

Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?

I will always prioritize maintaining funding for positions and services that directly impact student learning and well-being. My goal is to minimize disruption for students due to a budget shortfall.

Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?

I have been speaking with many students and families about Belmont’s approach to special education.  I think that we need to take a very close look at the number of students with out-of-district special education placements and assess whether Belmont can find ways to accommodate student needs in-district. We should capitalize on the availability of space that has been created by the construction of the new Belmont Middle High School and a decrease in district-wide enrollment to build a robust program to serve the needs of special education students in the district. By doing this, we will not only enable our Belmont students to remain in town with their siblings and neighbors, but we will also be able to control the costs of out-of-district spending on special education.

Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?

I will be available to work with my colleagues in many areas; however, I think that my legal background will make me an especially strong asset to the policy subcommittee.

What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?

I would like to explore changes to the schedule of fifth- and sixth-grade students at Chenery to provide for more recess/socialization time.

At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?

A Girl Scout’s mandate is to leave a place better than she found it. I will succeed if I can bring financial stability to our schools while maintaining academic excellence so that Belmont’s students can be assured of the best in public education for years to come.

Belmont’s School Committee Candidates: Rachel Watson [VIDEO]

Photo: Belmont School Committee candidate Rachel Watson

Born in a small town in Arizona, who went on to become a nurse, an attorney, and now an administrator and special education advocate, Rachel Watson is seeking election on the Belmont School Committee.

Who is Rachel Watson?

I moved to Belmont eight years ago when my oldest was two, and I was expecting my youngest. I am a single mom, a lawyer, a nurse, and a human resources administrator. My sons are now in fifth grade at Chenery and third grade in the LABBB program at Butler. This year, I am the co-chair of the Belmont Special Education Parent Advisory Council, and I was the chair of the Superintendent Screening Committee. I feel very fortunate to call Belmont home and raise my sons here. 

Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?

I am running for the school committee because thoughtful development of our special education program will be required to solve the budget issues facing our district.  As a mom to two children in special education, and SEPAC co-chair, I bring a unique perspective on the students and families that will be impacted as we make the needed changes to these programs.  As an attorney and a nurse, I also have the skills to quickly make sense of the regulatory framework that must be followed as we work to bring more special education programs in-district.  Currently, Belmont’s lack of in-district special education programs requires the placement of many students in costly and distant out-of-district programs.  Moving more special education programs in-district is key to alleviating the budget issues facing Belmont.

3.  What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?

A school committee member needs to know how to communicate with and collaborate with our diverse and vibrant community.  My career has included working with colleagues, clients, and patients from all over the world and all walks of life.  I know how to communicate effectively with everyone, from hospital patients experiencing mental illness and homelessness on the streets of L.A. to administrative law judges deciding whether or not my client will have their cancer treatment covered. I have had to deliver the news to my Armenian patient’s family that their loved one had passed and interview Ugandan refugees about the torture they experienced at home as they sought asylum in Japan. I am no stranger to high-stakes conversations. I am able to understand the perspectives of those very different from me and effectively collaborate to solve problems.  

Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?

School budgets are unlike those of a business.  There are many factors in play that are difficult to predict.  For example, the number of students needing special education services rarely remains static, and the level of services they need also fluctuates.  If even two more students than predicted must be placed out-of-district, the transportation costs alone can easily run $20,000 annually.  Moreover, these services are federally mandated, and failure to provide the services adequately and promptly leads to expensive lawsuits. The failure to accurately predict these costs is a major cause of our current budget woes. Trying to cap budget increases will simply lead to continuing budget crises as we will not have enough money to invest in programs when we need to and then find ourselves in need of even more funds later. 

Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?

As a school committee member, it will be on me to help effectively advocate for the override with the rest of the committee. I will work to explain the urgency of funding our schools to our entire community.  We must make it clear that our schools are underfunded and that the worst of the negative impacts on our children are being staved off by dedicated educators that are overwhelmed and overworked. The budget is complicated and not always easy to understand, but we must learn from past mistakes and make sure the necessity and wisdom of passing the override is clear.   

I also believe our community will support an override if we present a plan to use the funds from the override to invest in programs that will help control costs without sacrificing quality. Belmont residents shoulder a heavy tax burden and should know that these funds will be invested in ways that will help stabilize the school department’s budget. I would work with the administration and my fellow committee members to develop and present this to our community. The override cannot fail, or we will see larger class sizes, more struggling students slipping through the cracks, skilled and experienced educators being let go, and cuts of entire programs such as the currently proposed eliminations of the sixth-grade world language program and fourth-grade strings program. We should not allow such a decline in our schools.  

Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?

I think arguing over line items is counter-productive before I have the opportunity to work with the superintendent and the current school committee members to fully understand each line item. However, I would generally prioritize funding items that enhance our ability to identify student needs and serve them as early as possible such as kindergarten aides. The ability to prevent issues earlier in elementary school saves money in the long term, and better serves students. 

Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?

The district must do more than provide care to special education students; it must challenge them to reach their fullest potential in education.  The key to controlling costs is either working with the LABBB collaborative to expand programs housed in Belmont or developing our own in-district programs.  Currently, we have no in-district programs for students who need to learn outside the general education classroom.  We do have a few LABBB programs housed in Belmont school buildings, but these are shared with Lexington, Arlington, Bedford, and Burlington and cannot accommodate the demand for spaces in these programs.  

The result is that we must send far too many students to costly out-of-district programs and pay to transport them there.  The students must endure long commutes and their ability to be included in their own community is limited.  This is an equity issue and a strain on the budget.  By either expanding LABBB offerings in Belmont or developing our programs, we can increase accountability to families, increase inclusion in our schools, closely assess quality, and control costs.  

We must also thoroughly and proactively screen and evaluate students in their early elementary years, especially kindergarten. Then, if a student requires support, we must intervene aggressively. The earlier we supply support, the less likely students are to experience widening gaps in learning and development that are expensive to address and the more likely students are to feel competent in the classroom and achieve the academic excellence Belmont is known for.  The pandemic took a severe toll on students, and we can expect to see the impacts for years yet to come.  Making sure all of our students leave elementary school with the fundamental math and reading skills they need to succeed and social emotional skills needed to regulate themselves is imperative to maintaining the quality of our schools without having excessive increases in cost.   

Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?

I would focus on policy.  As an attorney, I am interested in the interplay between state and federal regulations and how we set policy for our school district.  I realize I will have much to learn as a new committee member. However, I am accustomed to diving into new fields, learning from those more experienced than me, and adapting my skills to present needs. 

What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?

We need a more child-centered school culture. An excellent example of what I mean by that is the recess issue at Chenery. Our fifth-grade students started this year only allowed recess time after they finished their lunch.  The lunch period is relatively short, so they often got as little as 3-5 minutes of recess daily, far short of the CDC-recommended 20 minutes daily. After months of parental advocacy, the administration has found ways to implement more recess time for fifth graders but has said there will still be no recess time for sixth graders next year. The school committee should hold the administration accountable for scheduling at least 20 minutes of recess daily for our fifth and sixth graders so they can work on their social skills and be more focused in class. When the school culture is welcoming, and lets kids be kids, academic and behavioral outcomes improve. 

At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?

I have laid out ambitious ideas and know that change is rarely quick. First, I will measure my success by concrete progress toward specific goals. I think that if all the students at Chenery Upper Elementary School get at least 20 minutes of recess per day, I would know I have succeeded in moving the school culture toward a more child-centered one. If we have developed and implemented new special education programs either on our own or with LABBB in both the new Belmont Middle School and Chenery Upper Middle School, then I will know we are moving toward securing both quality special education and the long-term health of our school’s finances. However, success as a school committee and a school district is a team effort. My priorities are the ones our community has been telling me they are looking for leadership on, and I think the primary way I will measure my success is if those I serve will continue to look to me to collaborate in solving the issues we face in Belmont, large and small. 

Belmont’s School Committee Candidates: Jung Yueh [VIDEO]

Photo: Belmont School Committee candidate Jung Yueh

A parent, an actuary, a coach and a national college champion in ballroom dancing, Jung Yueh is running for the first time to be elected on the Belmont School Committee.

Who is Jung Yeah?

My name is Jung Yueh. I came to the United States when I was 13 and went through the public school system in New York City. I went to MIT for an undergrad in mathematics and have a master’s degree in computer science from Northeastern University.  

We moved to Belmont on Christmas Day in 2010 for its public schools. In 2010, we visited the Butler School and Principal Mike McAllaster before making an offer to buy a house here.  

We have two kids in the Belmont Public Schools. My daughter is currently in 8th grade and going through high school course selections this month. My son is in 5th grade and is going to go from the youngest grade in his school this year at Chenery Middle school to be in 6th grade and the oldest grade in his school next year.

I am a “business math” guy by training: an actuary and Chartered Financial Analyst. I worked as a pension and retiree welfare actuary at AonHewitt and a health actuary at BlueCross BlueShield of Massachusetts and Tufts Health Plan. In our town, we face urgent fiscal and service challenges and need long-term plans that manage risk, value, and wise investment. These are the kinds of problems I work on. So I have dealt with benefits valuations and cash flow projections for pension plans, employee health plans, and retiree benefits. I now work for a local small business in Belmont that provides market research and survey analytics–helping people understand broad opinions and data.

Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?

I want to make a difference in my community. It’s precisely because it is a difficult time that I felt I needed to step up. I am not a politician, and it is not my personality or values to promote myself–I put my work first and pulled nomination papers because I’m determined to work for our kids, schools, and our whole community. I believe the school committee needs my skills, background, and representation. We have some excellent school committee members experienced in education and administration. I can complement their strength with my long-term financial planning and analytical skills. I am also a trained mediator–in addition to understanding surveys, I have spent years listening to diverse and even opposing opinions and getting the most out of everyone on a team.

What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?

The School Committee is chartered to manage four things. Budget, policies, hire and manage district leadership, and union negotiations. I am an actuary and Chartered Financial Analyst experienced in financial analysis and benefit valuations, together with my mediation training is experiences directly relevant to budgeting and negotiation. We need long-term, sound, clear financial plans and transparency.

I have been on different boards, including one where we had to hire a new CEO, not too different from hiring a superintendent or principal. We have a lot of turnover in our school leadership. And in my current work in market research and data analytics and with my training in mediation, I learn to understand different perspectives and seek win-wins and consensus. As we move toward a data-centric world, we will have to dive into available data as we try to hold our school administrators accountable.  

Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?

This is a very complex question.  So, I would suggest that we think of revenue and spending more comprehensively, and understand that the better we plan ahead, the better everyone will be.  If we keep funding the school system at a minimum level, we will get by ok in good years, but will not be resilient enough to handle unexpected system shocks.

I am going to geek out and look at our long-term tax history as an actuary would. I would question the assumptions in these statements.  

  • Assumption 1: town revenue increases are about 3.5 percent,
  • Assumption 2: town revenue should increase at about 3.5 percent,
  • Assumption 3: school district asks for more money than it needs.

Based on my review of our tax history in the last 22 years since 2001, our town’s tax base has increased by 5.35 percent per year on average, and the tax levy increase is only 5.09 percent (Even after the Middle and High School debt exclusion). You can find these numbers on the tax assessor’s website. So looking at our history, our tax rate has been steady and slightly decreasing. The 3.5 figure is likely related to increases we would expect if we never pass a proposition 2 ½ override, but includes new growth. New growth is new construction and home renovations.  

Proposition override is designed to encourage towns to discuss tax and spending. Like its name, Proposition 2½  sets a maximum level of property tax increases at 2.5 percent. This is, by design, insufficient for a residential community like Belmont. We have experienced dramatic increases in our real estate values, which means, without voter approval, our tax rate goes down. This has an effect of our revenue not keeping up with the town’s needs, solely because people in 1980 in Massachusetts thought it was a good idea to cap revenue below the rate of inflation. And of course, nobody likes taxes, so we start underfunding our services and fall behind on capital maintenance.

The school system asks for a budget based on the state-mandated requirements, agreements we made to the teachers in negotiated salary and benefits, and the number of students we need to support.  In our town, our school system has maintained excellence while consistently spending less per pupil than other comparable districts. Maybe we are exceptional, but it’s also likely that there are hidden costs that our parents and students bear. For example, we had deferred enough costs in building a strong enough special education program that when we had a system shock like COVID, our educators couldn’t handle the additional needs, and had to send students out of the district, which ended up costing us more. 

Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?

Our schools are the heart of our community, and why people want to move to Belmont. I will be a vocal proponent of passing an override in 2024. A big part of the conversation with voters will be related to how the town views the school spending. I feel it is important to explain clearly where the money is going, and why it is needed to keep our academic excellence–and as an actuary, I am well trained to help us plan, budget, and communicate longer-term.  

Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?

I support maintaining and improving the academic excellence in our schools, which means all students’ needs are supported and students have opportunities to be challenged and grow in subjects that excite them.

We must maintain mandated services–and the core of the budget does that. If you support advanced coursework, investing in building out our Special Education services, music, art, lots of rewarding instruction hours, staff for recess and flexible scheduling, caring for the safety, the emotional, and social well-being of our children – all of these things need an override. The school budget detail is very complicated and at the end of the day, it is the school department and school committee’s job to adjust the spending plans during the year as needs and challenges come up. We design the budget in the spring, but often don’t know the full details of the school year until the following January or February. We need flexibility for our experts and educators to maneuver and take care of all children. 

Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?

While it might cost more at the beginning, by properly providing a support system and training, we can support our children in the district better.  It will also reduce overall costs.  It takes a long-term approach in order to reduce our expenses. We must fund and staff this work now because we finally have the space. It will be an important multi-year effort and investment.

Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?

As a trained mediator, I want to be directly involved in the union negotiation.  Getting the conversation started and making sure the contract negotiation is completed on time in the next cycle will be good for everyone.

As I mentioned before, I am a first-generation American. I went through a robust ELL program in New York City where I had two years of in-school ESL classes, plus summer classes designed for new immigrants. I was able to take honor-level high school classes, and college-level math and literature classes at Queens College while still in high school. So making sure that we have a robust ELL program and making sure that our high school coursework continues to be appropriately challenging will be important to me. Early support and investment is the best for our kids. 

What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?

Currently, Chenery is too big to support our young middle schooler’s needs. A little more tender-loving care will be helpful. As it splits into BMS and CUE, I look forward to each school providing more age-appropriate mental health and emotional health support. We spend a lot of time accommodating logistics in Chenery–and I want to put the focus back on the kids and education instead of the building, the schedule, and its challenges.

At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?

I want to see less turnover in the administration, a positive relationship with the Belmont Education Association, and a successful override vote. If I was asked to run for re-election, I will know that I worked especially hard for our community, put the kids, educators, and community first, and did all we could to support this generation in recovery from the pandemic.

Opinion: On April 4, Yes For Belmont, Yes For The Rink

Photo: A debt exclusion for a new rink will be on the April 4 town election ballot.

Dear Fellow Belmont Citizens:

If you would be so kind, please allow me a few minutes of your time. April 4 is the day to vote for the approval of a new rink. You may have voted in November for this already or decided you didn’t want to approve a new rink.

If you are the latter, would you please consider this:

I could tell you the rink desperately needs replacing, which is costly, but, unfortunately, remodeling is not a viable option. 

I can tell you the price of the rink has been reduced significantly to $29 million.

I could tell you the price of a new rink ten years ago may have been a third of the price and the price ten years from now may be a third more. 

Money – yes – top of mind / important, of course, but can we also think about this:

What makes a great town great?

Most would agree town services, town facilities, infrastructure, schools & school services, town center, homes / real estate property values, proximity to Boston and the community itself. 

When we fall short, we all fall short. 

We diminish our greatness and great potential when we vote from a narrow viewpoint. 

Often we are called to vote for the greater good, the good of our town and your town!

If providing a facility:

For our little ones to learn how to skate,

For the public to enjoy public skating at any age and be able to rent skates,

For the high school field sports athletes to have changing rooms and bathrooms,

For those attending community events on Harris Track & Field to have bathrooms and a concession area,

For the recreation department to have a space to offer expanded community programming in the summer, like camps, adult classes, movie nights, concerts,

For our youth and high school boys and girls to play hockey and compete with other towns,

For families to gather and make memories and friendships to last a lifetime.

If all this doesn’t personally hit home with you, OK. But please consider the fact is we all live in this town. We all live in a great town. Let’s keep Belmont great. Let’s not remove a piece of our town and not replace it for future generations. 

Think again. Think about voting YES for Belmont, YES for the Rink on April 4.

Thank you in advance for your time. 

Laureen Federico 

Ivy Road

’23 Town Election Ballot Set: No Treasurer Candidate, Two From Three For School Committee

Photo: The ballot has been all been set for the April 4 Town Election

The ballot for the 2023 Belmont Town Election is set. While there is just one competitive race for town-wide offices on the April 4 election, the competition for Town Meeting seats will be a battle in six of the town’s eight precincts and a pair of ballot questions will determine the future of a pair of town institutions.

The race for the open Treasurer’s office is no race at all as no one took out nomination papers for the post currently held by the long-time treasurer Floyd Carman. The future of the office will be on the ballot in the form of Question 2 which asks voters if the Treasurer should continue to be elected or transforms into an appointed post.

The lack of a candidate brings up the interesting predictiment that a person with the most write-in votes on April 4 could become either acting treasurer if voters approve an appointed treasurers post or could become the full-time treasurer serving the next three years if the voters continue to support an elected post.

Voters will have three candidates to fill the seats of Kate Bowen and Mike Crowley. Rachel Watson, Amy Zuccarello and Jung Yueh are all first-time aspirants for the town-wide office. And while none are Town Meeting Members, Yueh and Watson will be running for seats on the 290-plus member legislative body.

The retirement of Adam Dash from the Select Board could only muster one candidate. Community Preservation Committee Chair and Warrant Committee member Elizabeth Dionne, who announced early and effectively cleared the field, will be the first woman since Anne Marie Mahoney left in 2004 to be elected to the board responsible for the oversight of town government. 

There will be a new/old member on the Health Board as Stephen Fiore is the only candidate to take the seat of long-serving board member and former chair Donna David. Fiore returns to the board after being defeated for re-election in 2021.

Voters will decide the fate of a new municipal skating and recreation center as the project comes back before voters after a $34 million debt exclusion was defeated in November. The proposal before the electorate has changed, with a reduction in design and cost, now just under $30 million. The second question is about the aforementioned elected vs appointed treasurer’s position.

Unlike years past when three or four precincts would have more candidates than available seats, voters in six of Belmont’s eight precincts will be treated to a long ballot of neighbors seeking three (or shorter) year terms on Town Meeting. Precinct 4 will seat the 12 three-year term members on the ballot (there is a race for the single one-year term) while those in Precinct 5 will need to select the 12th seat through write-in votes. The most competitive race is – somewhat surprisingly as it goes against its historical form of being bereft of candidates – in Precinct 7 where 9 incumbents join 11 hopefuls for the 12 seats.

Some interesting hopefuls include Adam Dash running for a Town Meeting seat in Precinct 1 after six years on the Select Board, School Committee’s Jeff Liberty in the crowded 7, Emerson (’26) Student Government Association President – and best name on the ballot – Angus James Benedict Abercrombie in Precinct 8 while expecting a perfectly written and grammatically correct campaign sign from newcomer Jane Rosenzweig in Precinct 5.

Three Take Out Nom Papers For Two Open School Committee Seats; No One Pulls For Treasurer Post

Photo: Nomination papers deadline is Feb. 14

Three newcomers have started the process of running for two School Committee seats in which both incumbents have chosen not to seek re-election.

Two-term member Kate Bowen is not seeking a third on the committee, according to an email Bowen sent to the Belmontonian. Bowen would not explain why she would not be returning. While incumbent Micheal Crowley has taken out nomination papers, he told the Belmontonian he would not turn in the nomination papers when qualified candidates run for both seats open this election cycle. Crowley joined the board after winning a rump election in 2019 and was elected to a full term three-year term in 2020.

As of Friday, Feb. 3, three residents have taken out nomination papers from the Town Clerk’s office: Rachel Watson, Amy Zuccarello and Jung Yueh. So far, Yueh is the first of the three to return the necessary number of signatures to qualify for the April 4 Town Election, according to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman.

Yueh is a director of client services for a small Belmont software developer. Zuccarello, a partner with Sullivan & Worcester, is active with Parents of Music Students, and Watson, a Human Resources Administrator, and attorney, is the co-chair of the Belmont Special Education Parent Advisory Council (Belmont SEPAC).

Zuccarello and Yueh were two of ten candidates to apply to fill a vacant seat on the school board created by Andrea Prestwich’s resignation in Nov. 2021. Ralph Jones was selected for the post.

Those joining the committee in April will step into a budgetary tempest with the possibility of significant cuts in staff and programming and defending a major Prop 2 1/2 override.

Town-wide races

With just under ten days to return the necessary papers to have the Town Clerk, no one has taken out nomination papers for Town Treasurer despite Belmont’s long-time treasurer Floyd Carman declaring late in 2022 he would not seek re-election after 18 years on the job. The lack of potential candidates comes less than a week after a Special Town Meeting approved a ballot question on the April 4 Town Election to change the Treasurer’s position from an elected to an appointed post.

Most incumbents have taken out nomination papers in other town-wide elected positions:

  • Town Moderator Mike Widmer, first elected in 2008, has secured a place on the ballot.
  • Incumbents Kathleen Keohane and Gail Mana are seeking to fill a pair of three-year terms on the Board of Library Trustees.
  • Gloria Leipzig is running for a second five-year term on the Housing Authority.
  • Bob Reardon, Sr. – who is looking to secure another three-year term – and Pat Murphy have taken papers out to run for seats on the Board of Assessors.
  • Elizabeth Dionne has qualified for a run to succeed Adam Dash for a three-year term with the Select Board.
  • Alex Corbett, III, hopes to retain his seat on the Board of Cemetary Commissioners.
  • Long-time member and former chair of the Health Board, Donna David has yet to take out nomination papers, while Stephen Fiore, who lost a seat in 2021, has pulled papers for the one three-year seat on the board up for grabs this cycle.

The deadline to submit nomination papers to have the candidate’s name appear on the ballot is St. Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at 5 p.m.