BREAKING: State Approves School District’s Plan to Renovate Belmont High School

Photo: The MSBA voting to invite Belmont to begin the process to renovate Belmont High School.

A decade of applications and waiting ended at 10:44 a.m. Wednesday morning, Jan. 27 in a crowded board room at 40 Broad St. in Boston as the Massachusetts State Building Authority voted to invite the Belmont School District to begin the process that Belmont officials anticipate will result in the complete renovation of Belmont High School and the construct of a new science wing at the Concord Avenue campus.

Massachusetts Treasurer Deb Goldberg, who heads the MSBA, made the announcement before nearly 100 school administrators and staff, politicians and local elected officials, including Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, Belmont High Principal Dan Richards and Belmont School Committee Chair Laurie Slap. 

“This is great news for the town of Belmont,” said Slap after the vote. 

See a video of the Belmont delegation responding to the vote: (from left: Superintendent John Phelan, School Committee Chair Laurie Slap and Belmont High Principal Dan Richards. 

Belmont High was the only high school to be selected, joining seven elementary schools from Harvard, Lexington. Ludlow, Manchester Essex, Marlborough, Tisbury and Triton Regional districts to make the final cut.

A total of 26 building projects were vying for approval this year, including Arlington High School and the Maria Hastings Elementary School in Lexington. 

With the MSBA vote, the clock begins running as the district enters a 270-day “eligibility period” in which the district is required to complete preliminary steps including forming a school building committee, hiring a building manager and conducting a feasibility study which establishes a process for the district to be reimbursed for eligible expenses. This is the first of eight “modules” the district and town will need to complete to receive the state grant. 

(The process of creating a building committee is already underway as the special town meeting on Feb. 8 will include a vote to create a high school building committee.)

“During those 270 days, we’ll work all that information through and then meet with the community,” said Phelan.

For the Belmont delegation, the next few weeks will be educating themselves on what the state expects from the district.

“That’s what we going to find out in the next meeting, it’s the details,” said Richards.


The project price tag, based on an updated 2008 estimation, was calculated at $79.6 million. With eight years of inflation added to the 2008 figure, the total cost is now closer to $100 million.

With a third of the eligible costs reimbursed by the MSBA, Belmont taxpayers will be responsible for $66 to $70 million of the total cost.

“This [project] has been on everyone’s minds for years and years,” said Slap. “Everyone understands the need for a renovated school so our job is to make sure that we plan this as carefully and thoughtfully as we can. We are always very respectful of taxpayer’s dollars but this is a critical project that has to be done.” 

“We are going to have lots of time to educate the community and lots of community involvement. Stay tuned, there is lots to come,” said Slap. 

Under the 2008 revision of the 2004 Belmont High School master plan:
  • Construction at the school will take place in four phases over four years so students will remain on the existing campus,
  • All construction will be within the 257,000 sq.-ft. footprint of the current building, and
  • A 34,000 sq.-ft. Science wing will be built in the parking lot adjacent the Wenner Field House and the Higginbottom Pool.

The renovation of the five-decade-old school building is critical as it is currently “structurally unsound” and “jeopardize the health and safety of the school children,” according to Belmont’s 2014 SOI submitted to the MSBA.

The new science center will add 13.5 percent more classroom and lab space to the school, with the hope of “eliminat[ing] the existing severe overcrowding” at the school. The district is predicting an additional 254 students at the high school by fiscal 2024.

Modular Classrooms Heading to Chenery’s Tennis Court

Photo: The Chenery Middle School tennis courts which will house six modular classrooms in August 2016.

After putting off a decision for the past two years, Belmont School District announced last week it will place six modular classrooms on the Chenery Middle School tennis courts for the start of the 2016-17 school year in August.

The classrooms – single-story temporary prefabricated structures most notably used last to house Wellington Elementary students as the new school was being built five years ago – are being brought to the middle school to alleviate the skyrocketing enrollment in the past five years that is taxing the building’s capacity, according to Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan and members of the Capital Budget Committee. 

The decision to go with modulars is not a surprise as the district initially discussed adding temporary classrooms nearly three years ago when the Space Task Force established by former Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston concluded the Chenery “does not have enough space to support the current level of student enrollment” and won’t be able to fit the large classes funneling from the four elementary schools in the next five years.”

The solution “will result in the need for modular classrooms” by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

The six classrooms – equipt with their own bathrooms and powered with underground electrical wiring – each can hold up to 25 students, making a dent in the rapid increase in student enrollment in Belmont schools. 

While the Chenery is the only school selected this coming school year, the school district will evaluate the enrollment numbers at the elementary schools with the possibility of purchasing more units for one or more of the district’s four elementary schools. 

Phelan said the district has no timetable on how long the units will be used or if they will be moved from school to school when there is a need for more classrooms. 

“[They’ll be] used as long as needed,” he said. 

While Phelan said the district has yet to decide on the type or style of the “mods” to be placed at the Chenery “we are working with the same engineering firm that Winchester is using” during the construction of that district’s new High School.

On that project, Littleton-based firm Triumph Modular added eight classrooms as a new school was being built on the site of the current building. 

Closer to home, Triumph was hired by Belmont Hill School in 2013 to provide six classrooms, an open testing area, five private offices, a conference room, and restrooms for staff and students for a year and a half during construction of a school building. 

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 2.45.20 PM

Modular units at Belmont Hill School 2013.

According to a “rough budget” from a modular study created by the school district, the estimated cost for lease the mods for three years comes to $1.12 million compared to the upfront cost of $1.23 million buying the units. 

“The one benefit with buying [the modulars] is that there is a resale market for the newer units” as opposed to the type the district bought in the past, said Ann Marie Mahoney, Capital Budget chair. 

While the school district has yet decided if they will lease or buy the units – “a cost analysis [is] underway” to determine the financially wise course, said Phelan – the likely purchase of the modular structures could result in the Capital Budget Committee using its entire $1.1 million budget acquiring the units.

“We can’t keep asking taxpayers to bond another million dollar expense,” said Mahoney.

“But then we can’t meet requests from the other departments this budget cycle,” she said.

“It will simplify our Town Meeting report,” Mahoney said wistfully.


Seventeen Educators Honored Reaching Professional Status

Photo: Fifteen of the seventeen educators who were granted professional status by the Belmont School District. 

For Elizabeth Gentes, Tuesday night was the culmination of her giving Belmont students a first-class education. In return, the School District recognized that effort and her skills by saying “thanks for sticking with us. We’d like you to stay,” she said. 

Gentes was one of 17 educators the Belmont School District recently bestowed professional status onto, who were honored at a ceremony held on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at the Chenery Middle School. Professional status is granted to outstanding educators by the superintendent or school principal after their third consecutive year, providing what is essentially a type of tenure and some measure of job security.

“It’s really exciting. The past three years have gone by so fast,” she said. 

The 17 educators include:

  • Jennifer Aller, High school math
  • Danielle Bayardi, Grade 5 math and science
  • Catherine Bresnahan, Special ed at Chenery
  • Kristen Colavito, First grade at Wellington
  • Lindsey Costa, High school chemistry
  • Lindi DeLorio, Elementary ELL
  • Caitlin Elgert, Fourth grade at Winn Brook
  • Elizabeth Gentes, Sixth-grade science at Chenery
  • Jennifer Hebert, High school math
  • Jacqueline Kaiser, High school French
  • Yasmin Khan, Fifth-grade math/science at Chenery
  • Christa Lesiczka, Third grade at Wellington
  • Lianne McCann, Speech and language pathologist at Chenery
  • Meghan McGovern, Second grade at Winn Brook
  • Daniel Moresco, High school math
  • Allison Ruane, Sixth-grade social studies at Chenery
  • Mina Vahedi, Kindergarten at Wellington.

Gentes said obtaining professional status was in many ways “a team effort. Everyone is doing their part,” from colleagues to administrators who encourage the third-year teachers to continue growing in their job and personally.

“It’s definitely not something you accomplish by yourself, but it feels really good to get there and know all the support that was behind you. It really showed tonight of all the people who showed up to say, ‘Hey, you did it’.” Gentes said. 

District Enrollment Keeps Marching Higher as School Year Begins

Photo: More students have entered Belmont schools in the past three months.

The news on student enrollment levels in Belmont’s six public schools from School Superintendent John Phelan continues along a familiar theme of the past five years: more are still coming.

At the Sept. 8 School Committee meeting, Phelan reported that between June 1 to Sept. 3, 72 net additional students in Kindergarten through 12th grade entered the system which now serves a total enrollment of 4,362.

Since 2009, approximately 400 additional students have been added to the district’s rolls. 

Phelan said he is “very optimistic” of the total figure as it was close to actual number of children counted on the first day of school, Wednesday, Sept. 2, which saw an attendance rate of 97.5 percent.

“Everyone came and were welcomed to class,” said Phelan.

Notable in the new enrollment data is the jump in the number of students at the Chenery Middle School which crossed the 1,300 student mark with 1,320 pupils, an increase of 38 students in the past 90 days.

But Phelan said he’s confident that total and middle school numbers will rise as every day “two or three more students” were being enrolled in the first week of school opening.

To keep up with the rising numbers, Belmont High has converted existing modular space behind the school into classrooms, the only school that will be using non-permanent structures this year. In June, Phelan said it looked increasingly possible that added physical space will be required in the 2016-17 school year to accommodate the new students. 

Custodians, Cafeteria Workers Strike Three-Year Deal with Schools

Photo: Custodians at work.

The men and women who keep Belmont’s six schools clean and tidy and help feed 4,100 students will be getting a small pay raise after the Belmont School Committee approved a three-year contract with the union representing the workers.

The committee unanimously approved the memorandum of agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) which represents the 33 employees – 18 custodians and 15 cafeteria workers employed more than 20 hours.

The compensation package, retroactive to July 1, 2014 and running through 2017, will see workers receive wage increases of:

  • 0.5 percent as of July 1, 2014,
  • 2.25 percent as of July 1, 2015,
  • 2 percent as of July 1, 2016, and 
  • 0.25 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2017.

The agreement also includes a performance review and how the workers account for snow days. 

No Need for Modulars at Belmont Schools in Coming School Year

Photo: Newton’s Oak Hill Middle School recently used eight modulars to fill a temporary space need, adding 4,800 sq.-ft. to the district’s footprint.

During the worst of the record snow fall in February, it appeared a certainty that many of Belmont’s six schools would see small villages of modular structures spring up in the fall to meet the need of housing the explosion of students – 317 in the past five years – entering the district.

But under the warmth of summer skies, the outlook for temporary classrooms moving into spaces adjacent the schools has diminished so much that the district will be able to handle the current enrollment within the footprint of the half-dozen schools, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan told the Belmont School Committee at its June 9 meeting.

But Phelan said he could only make that assurance for the upcoming 2015-16 school calendar. After that, with a projection of more than 800 additional students entering the district over 10 years by the 2018-19 school year, the school department will need to work closely with the town’s Capital Budget Committee to discuss options on meeting classroom demands.

“We will form a committee to meet this fall to re-examine and solidify our enrollment projections and brainstorm short- and long-term solutions,” said Phelan, saying the group will consist of school committee members and town officials including those serving on Capital Budget.

But the need for temporary classrooms will not be necessary in the coming school year, said Phelan. Each of the schools were able to “create” space to be utilized for learning;

  • The four elementary schools will use existing space and the increase in full-time equivalent staffing to expand programming to meet the rising enrollment; 
  • A computer lab at the Chenery Middle School will be retrofitted into classroom space to accommodate the increase in students; and 
  • The High School will use the existing modular classrooms units in the back of the school adjacent the commuter rail tracks. As of now, there will be no need to move the Belmont Food Pantry which is located in two of the rooms. 

Yet if enrollment trends continue as predicted in recent models, “we will need to discuss our options with the School Committee and the Capital Committee,” said Phelan. 

In the past two years, Belmont town and school officials have used the idiom that the school district has been “bursting at the seams” with the rapid increase in student enrollment – 330 more students – since 2009.

In February, Phelan noted that skyrocketing student rolls would likely require the district to consider using modular classrooms – single-story prefabricated buildings most notably used in Belmont to house Wellington Elementary students as the new school was being built.

A report on enrollment commissioned by former Belmont Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston in 2013 bluntly stated the Chenery Middle School “does not have enough space to support the current level of student enrollment” and won’t be able to fit the large classes funneling from the four elementary schools in the next five years.

The solution “will result in the need for modular classrooms” by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year at the school located on Washington Street. 

Nor is the situation at the aging Belmont High School any better. The school is currently “out of space,” said the report, with 31 rooms shared by two teachers and four rooms by three teachers.

Modular classrooms are growing in popularity in many school districts to meet space demands. Modulars can be brought onto a site and set up in a matter of days, with lower annual utility and operating costs then a permanent building. 

Newton’s Oak Hill Middle School recently used eight modulars to fill a temporary space need, adding 4,800 sq.-ft. to the district’s footprint.



Belmont Schools Honor Eight Retirees Who Provided 200 Years of Educational Grit

Photo: Retiring: (from left) Mary Dominguez, Anne Mullany, Rosemary Peterson, Roseanne Mili and Georgia Patterson.

They had a collective experience of nearly two centuries working in the Belmont schools; a testament to their commitment to education.

At a ceremony held on Tuesday, June 9, Belmont School Committee honored eight educators and staff members as they prepared to retire from the district at the end of the 2015 school year. 

Susan Blanchard, Mary Dominguez, Roseanne Mili, Anne Mullany, Georgia Patterson, Ellen Payne, Rosemary Peterson and Colleen Ryder were feted by the reading of a resolution from the School Committee, providing a brief glimpse of their skills and personalities that were hallmarks of their careers.  

Below are samples of the accomplishments of these educators and staff members:

“She finds ways to engage every learner – by giving extra time and attention to those who struggle, by stretching those who are ready for enrichment, and by never forgetting the needs in the middle either.” – Susan Blanchard.

“Teachers know that they can count on Mary to figuratively and literally bring science to life in their classrooms. She delivered crayfish to third grade classrooms, wrangles those that escape and fearlessly trains reluctant teachers and students to handle them.” – Mary Dominguez. 

“Aside from the wealth of knowledge and skills Mrs. Mili has provided the children of Belmont over the years, she has given them a joyful music-making experience that has fostered a love of music that they will carry with them throughout their lives.” – Roseanne Mili. 

“She has developed teaching skills that present as genuine, professional magic with which she invites students to learn.” – Anne Mullany. 

“Her pivotal role in the Student Services department allowed her to truly leave a mark on the facilitation of services for our students, and the success they ultimately achieved due to those added supports and assistance.” – Georgia Patterson.

“She is endlessly patient with her students – most of whom struggle in school – and her true grit is in convincing students that they are capable and that she will believe and support them until they believe in themselves and can support themselves.” – Ellen Payne.

“She worked consistently over the years to define and develop a strong school health program for the district, and provide oversight and guidance to nursing staff, administration and community partners.” – Rosemary Peterson. 

“She possessed endless empathy for students and families who struggled and always fought on their behalf. Her kindness and supportive nature and the impact she has had on our entire community will be sorely missed.” – Colleen Ryder.

School Committee OKs Fee, Rent Increases for Using School Spaces

Photo: School lunches will increase by a quarter beginning in September.

The Belmont School Committee approved a package of fee hikes for all users of school space at its Tuesday, June 10 meeting.

The action, first reported in the Belmontonian last month, will begin in July at the start of the new fiscal year in July for facility rentals, full-day Kindergarten and school breakfast and lunches.

The increases come after an analysis conducted this spring by the Belmont School District to determine the actual cost of operating school facilities including classrooms and athletic spaces. 

Examples of the new fees include: 

• Increases for after school care will range from $7,400 to $5,900 over the two years with rental expenses reaching $29,425 at the Wellington, Butler and the Middle School, $23,406 at the Winn Brook and Burbank and $6,688 at the High School in fiscal 2017. 

• A jump in lunch fees by a quarter at the district’s elementary, middle and high schools will result in Belmont’s total pricing of $9.50, jumping from the lower to the highest third of other school districts, comparable to schools in municipalities such as Lexington ($9.25), Dover-Sherborn ($9.75) and Winchester ($10) but still behind Watertown ($10.50) and Concord ($10.55). 

• One local organization feeling the impact is the Belmont Aquatic Team. The non-profit will see its hourly rent for the Higginbottom Pool located at Belmont High School increase from $13.28 to $50 an hour in the coming school year and $75 in 2016-17. 

Speaking to the committee, Elena Ruggiero, BAT’s director of registration, said the new rental expenses on the 35-year-old club, with 77 swimmers – it is one of the smallest clubs in the New England Swim League – “does seem abrupt, making up from past times.”  

Ruggiero said the organization did not feel the school district’s move towards establishing market rents as “unfair considering the very low rates currently.” But she said “it is a big expansion of fees” resulting in higher tuition rates. Currently, members – 88 percent are Belmont residents – pay between $700 (for those 10 and younger) and $900 (for more senior swimmers) for half of a 11 month season. 

Ruggiero said the jump in tuition for members will be “substantial” and the club will only know how it will effect membership when enrollment starts in September.

School District Superintendent John Phelan, who described each effected group as “our partners,” said he is committed to a continuing dialogue with the renters on the impact of the higher expenses, a comment that Ruggiero took to heart. 

“Our hope is that we keep talking,” said Ruggiero, noting that most teams are part of a larger business – many own the pools and rent them out or conduct swimming lessons – with dedicated revenue that allows them to subsidize the clubs.

“We are just a swim team,” said Ruggiero. 

Belmont Schools Increasing Rents, Fees for BASEC, Swim Team and Kindergarten

Photo: Renting Belmont High School’s Higginbottom Pool will cost more if the Belmont School Committee approved fee increases. 

Saying that teaching positions should not be sacrificed if programs using its facilities are not paying a fair rate, the Belmont School Committee was presented a proposal to increase the rent for two non-profit programs and a jump in kindergarten fees in the coming school year.

“So now we will be we equitable with other areas and we’ll be getting more money,” said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan at the committee’s meeting held Tuesday, May 26 at the Chenery Middle School.

Under the new fee schedule, two popular programs, the Belmont After School Enrichment Collaborative (the independent non-profit that runs the after school care programs at Belmont schools) and the Belmont Aquatic Team will see significant hikes in rental bills in the next two years.

Part of the impetus for a comprehensive review of the district’s rent and fee schedule came during the lead up to the Proposition 2 1/2 override vote in April, in which town voters overwhelming approved a $4.5 million tax hike to cover future deficits in the district’s budget.  

“We have not raised fees in five years and we’ve been talking about” revisiting the subject no matter the override’s outcome, said Phelan.

The overriding concern facing the district is that the current rates doesn’t meet the costs of “keeping the lights on,” paying utility costs, cleaning the areas, having maintenance workers on site and other demands on the district to keep the facilities up and running. 

Led by Tony DiCologero, the district’s Finance, Business and Operations director, the analysis calculated the cost-per-square-foot to operate a variety of spaces – the Higginbottom pool at the High School is far more expensive than a standard classroom – so the district could create a “baseline” cost to use a particular location.

DiCologero discovered the current sticker price for space did not meet the basic expenses required to manage the space. In addition, Belmont’s rental fees were well below the market rates of surrounding towns.

After the initial analysis was run, Phelan and DiCologero met with the two major users of school space – BASEC and BAT – to discuss the need for a “rethinking” on the fees.

“We see them as partners with the schools,” said Phelan. “They were expecting rate increases and were eager to refile contracts and we agreed to phase in the fee so not to pile on a burdensome expense in the next six month.”

Under the proposal, BASEC will see an increase of about a third to rent space in the six schools – 25 percent in fiscal 2016 and 7 percent in fiscal 2017.

In actual dollars, increases range from $7,400 to $5,900 over the two years with rental expenses reaching $29,425 at the Wellington, Butler and the Middle School, $23,406 at the Winn Brook and Burbank and $6,688 at the High School in fiscal 2017. The school district will see an increase of a nearly $36,000.

BAT will see a major increase in its rent over the two years of a proposed new contract. Currently, the squad pays what many consider a token fee of $13.28 an hour, using the pool for just over 500 hours for a total cost of $6,760.

Beginning in fiscal 2016, the rent increases to $50 an hour and then to $70 an hour in fiscal ’17. The increase will see rental fees jump by $28,000 over the two years to $35,000. 

In addition to the fees, the groups will also need to produce a certificate of insurance and have their employees submit to a CORI review. 

Phelan said he did not know what the rental fees would cost individuals as members of the effected groups, but he has heard the groups “will be able to absorb the new costs.”  

Parents of incoming full-day kindergarteners will see fees increase either $400 or $600, depending whether Gov. Charlie Baker is successful in passing through the legislature a cut in an annual state grant that facilitates full-day K. If the grant money is not restored by either the House or Senate, the higher rate will be imposed. 

Even with the higher fee – the first increase in four years – compared to surrounding town and private kindergarten, the cost for the program “remains a bargain,” said Phelan.

The proposal is before the School Committee and its financial subcommittee. It will be voted at the next meeting of the school committee on June 9.

Two-Bit Hike in School Lunch Prices Next School Year

Photo: Lunch in Belmont.

Dustin O’Brien, Belmont Public School’s Food Services director, has been a culinary whirling dervish this school year. 

The person responsible for providing nutritious meals for students that partake in the lunch offerings at the six Belmont public schools – as well as breakfast at the Belmont High – O’Brien has been leading the way in establishing innovative programs and new nutrition partnerships including taste testing new menu items, bringing in rustic breads with Iggy Breads and starting a “farm to table” initiative where locally grown produce from Belmont Acres Farm and from other growers is used in meals throughout the growing season.

According to Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan, the entire operation is self-sufficient, with the money taken in paying for the food and staff in each school.

“They don’t take a dime from the district,” Phelan told the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, May 26. 

Yet there is more than just food and personnel that makes for an efficient department. They need to outfit a working kitchen – the pots, pans, and especially the bigger items, said Phelan, “working oven and refrigerators.” 

Yet, other than the basics, O’Brien doesn’t have the extra cash on hand to do simple tasks such as haul away broken equipment from the lunch rooms. 

With the support of Phelan, O’Brien has created a capital plan for food services, “to continue to provide quality food,” said the superintendent. 

The program would be set up like a revolving capital fund, with funds appropriated to replacing and upgrading equipment along with any other need in the kitchen. 

The proposal asks the School Committee to approve a 25 cents increase for a daily meal “ticket” to bring in between $60,000 to $66,000 annually into the revolving account. 

The changes will result in the following prices for lunch beginning in the new school year in August:

  • Belmont High School: $3.50
  • Chenery Middle School: $3.25
  • Belmont’s elementary schools: $2.75

Even with the increases, Belmont school lunch prices will be in the bottom third compared to surrounding communities, said Phelan. And hopefully with new equipment, prices will remain lower due to efficiencies. 

The School Committee will decide on the fee increase at its June 9 meeting.