District Adds Jewish High Holiday Observance to Belmont School Calendar

Photo: Dr. David Alper speaking before the Belmont School Committee. 

The Belmont School Committee approved a pilot program to close school for one day in observance of the Jewish High Holidays beginning in the coming 2015-16 school year.

In addition to the decision made Tuesday night, March 24, Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan once again voiced his support to begin each school year the week before Labor Day, rather than the traditional first Wednesday of September.

“We felt it was very important that we made sure we were respectful to our community,” said Phelan, who discussed the issue with the six school principals and senior staff. The move came after the committee requested on March 10 that Phelan review possibly changing the school calendar’s traditional makeup.

Two weeks ago, School Committee member Elyse Shuster questioned why the Belmont schools calendar traditionally had a half day scheduled for Good Friday and not any other religious holidays as well as the annual hardships Jewish families encounter.

For Jewish parents and students, the current policy of not penalizing students for taking a day to observe one or both of the High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – has never been a satisfactory compromise as children are expected to make up any missed class and homework scheduled on those days, said Shuster.

With the holidays coinciding with the first month of classes, the prospects of falling behind so early in the school year has many observant Belmont families having to make difficult choices.

Shuster also pointed out that many surrounding communities such as Winchester, Arlington, Newton and Milton observe one or both of the high holidays.

“We are an outlier not … closing for either or any of the Jewish holidays,” said Shuster.

Dr. David Alper, who has children in the district for the past dozen years, told the board he has “suffered with this for 12 years.” Every year Alper said the prevailing calendar “adds stress to my children while we try to have them focus on observing our holidays.”

Alper said the need for a day away from the secular and to the religious is also important on a broader plane.

“The fact is that we need to be able to have the opportunity to let children across the community understand that religion is an important part of our lives,” Alper told the committee, saying a discussion of any observance is a way to introduce tolerance to others.

“We need to be able to do these types of [observances],” he said.

Amy Tannenbaum is a life-long Belmontian, who missed school for 12 years to attend services. But expectations of students – especially in High School – is much greater than when she was attending the district. So her children would come home from services and immediately hit the books to complete homework rather than be observant.

“I think there is a stress piece … that these kids feel like ‘the class got taught, and most kids were there and I got to make it up’,” said Tannenbaum.

In the end, the School Committee accepted a 2015-16 school calendar closing the school for one day – Shuster and the board believed that day should be Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and repentance in which Jewish people fast for the entire day and spend that time in prayer. Yom Kippur will be observed on Wednesday, Sept. 23 this year. Good Friday in 2016 will remain a half day.

If Yom Kippur should fall on the weekend, such as in 2017, the day off will revert to Rosh Hashanah.

Limited Tickets Remain For Foundation for Belmont Education’s Spring Fling

Photo: The highly entertaining Neal Fay will be this year’s auctioneer at the Foundation for Belmont Education’s 16th annual Spring Dinner.

Don’t be left out in the snow: a limited number of tickets are still available to the Foundation for Belmont Education’s 16th annual Spring Dinner set for Saturday, March 21.

And it would be wise to get those tickets soon as the price of tickets will increases March 2, from $125 to $150.  

You can obtain tickets here.

“Mad for Education” is this year’s theme for a night of dinner, dancing and a fast-paced auction led by Neal J. Fay.

The event takes place at the Belmont Hill School from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

For more information, e-mail the FBE at springdinner@fbe-belmont.org

Belmont Schools Face ‘Significant, Negative Impact’ in Fiscal ’16 Budget; Loss of 22 Positions, Larger Class Sizes

Photo: Teacher and staff represented by the Belmont Education Association listening to District Superintendent John Phelan present the fiscal 2016 school budget to the Belmont School Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Belmont students will face “significant and negative impacts” if the Belmont School Committee approves an available revenue budget for the next fiscal year leaving the town’s top-rated schools with an anticipated $1.7 million shortfall, according to Belmont District Superintendent John Phelan.

The current budget would force Phelan to eliminate up to 22 full-time positions including teachers and staff, allow classroom sizes in all grades to exceed the School Committee’s own benchmarks for effective teaching and increase the number of “frees” and study halls for middle and high school students.

“It would be problematic for the district to function as a Tier 1 district under this budget,” Phelan told the Belmontonian Thursday, Feb. 12.

Making the first public presentation of the fiscal 2016 budget before the School Committee and approximately 75 teachers and staff at the Chenery Middle School, Phelan presented an overview of its fiscal year 2016 budget in which the district would run on the best estimates of the available revenue from state and town sources.

Under the town’s estimates, the schools will receive $47.5 million in fiscal ’16 under the current Town Meeting approved 58/42 budget “split” in which the district receives 58 percent of total revenues.

Belmont is already doing a great deal of what it has, said Phelan. Where the average annual expenditure per student statewide is $14,571, Belmont has become an educational destination for homebuyers spending roughly $12,800 a year.

In the presentation, Phelan told the committee the district finds itself facing several “pressure points,” the most immediate is the skyrocketing increase in enrollment. In just the past five years – 2009 to 2014 – the student population in kindergarten to 12th grade has increased by 317 students to 4,222 in October, 2014.

And the forecast is that an additional 408 students will enter the district by 2019, a ten-year increase of 723 pupils. For comparison, the Wellington Elementary School has approximately 440 students.

Phelen said the increasing population has also bumped up the number of students requiring assistance in English Language learning by nearly double in two years, 117 in 2013 to 222 in 2015. Because about 80 of those students are not very proficient in English, the state requires Belmont to hire new staff to provide 2.5 hours of “small group instruction.”

Also in the overall population is a growing number special education students. The major component of the current year’s $500,000 school deficit is nearly $950,000 in unanticipated costs associated with special education. And those costs will increase in fiscal 2016 with the rising number of students entering the district.

When calculating the new costs required to the current “pressure points” and moving the current level of staff and teachers into the new year, the schools will need $49.2 million just to “stay current.”

But with rising costs and stagnate revenue, Phelan said schools will be unable to meet the demands of the residents and students for a top-tier education as it attempts to fill the $1.7 million gap.

“With enrollments going up, and the number of positions staying steady if not being reduced, I would be hard pressed to say we can continue what we are doing,” Phelan told the Belmontonian.

The cuts would be deep and substantial: 22 full-time positions from teaching, staff and aids would be cut, a further reduction in material and supplies, trimming professional development, forego building maintenance, increase the fees to rent school property and a large increase in student and family fees for sports, clubs and full-time kindergarten.

What isn’t seen in the cost cutting will be more students in each classroom, less programs and idle teens “sitting on benches in the high school and in study halls at the Chenery,” said Phelan.

“This can only negatively impact student learning.”

The solution in Phelan’s eye and, in previous discussions with the School Committee, is to enthusiastically support the proposal outlined last month by the Financial Task Force to request the Board of Selectmen to place a three-year, $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the ballot to fund the enrollment issues facing the district.

“That is the solution,” he said.

John Sullivan, a Palfrey Road resident, Belmont teacher and president of the Belmont Education Association which represents district teachers in union negotiations, told the board that despite a highly trained and capable staff, class size impacts the day-to-day experience of students.

“If Belmont wants to maintain a high-quality student experience, one that puts Belmont High in the top 10 percent of high school state-wide, then the fiscal year ’16 budget, and future budgets, need to address the increase in enrollment,” said Sullivan.

Bursting Enrollment Makes Modular Classrooms Likely at Belmont Schools by 2016

Photo: An example of modular classrooms in Needham, Massachusetts.

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.

Now that figurative phrase is becoming literally true as the number of pupils continue rocketing upward will likely require the district to begin using modular classrooms – single-story prefabricated buildings most notably used in Belmont to house Wellington Elementary students as the new school was being built – to house the surge of children, according to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

Phelan made the observation at two recent meeting in January when the executive summary report of the Belmont Financial Task Force was presented to the public and the Belmont Board of Selectmen.

It doesn’t require a lengthy report to realize that with any increase in enrollment, “the need for increased classroom space is inevitable,” said Phelan.

The first steps to quantify the impact on school buildings began more than a year ago under former Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston who established a Space Task Force. One of the first actions taken was hiring a local architectural firm to project the district’s building requirements with the space it had and the estimated number of students coming into the system.

The study concluded for Belmont to keep within its appropriate class-size range, the elementary schools will require an additional class from kindergarten through 4th grade.

“This would result in the need for modular classrooms … by September 2016” for the elementary schools, said Phelan.

The report 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.

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.

With the demand for additional class offerings and “the wave” of enrollment increases coming each year,” the need for space at the High School is becoming critical,” said Phelan.

The “wave” Phelan talked about is evident comparing the 260 students who graduated in 2014 with the 354 students who entered Kindergarten that same year. And those numbers are not seen dropping as “[h]istorical enrollment trends indicate there is little if any, net loss of enrollment over the grade spans.”

In its long-term plan to meet the sky-high enrollment issues facing Belmont, the school district will request hiring an additional 20 teachers over three years beginning in the 2015-16 school year, all dependent on the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override sometime in the spring.

A major new initiative by Phelan will be to target eight of the new teachers to reduce the chronic issue of student either sitting in large study halls in the middle school and having idle time at the high school known as “frees.”

The Board of Selectmen has yet to approve or set a date for the override as of Feb. 11.

Even with a successful override vote, space will continue to be a glaring handicap for the schools.

“If you want to increase the number of teachers at the middle or high school to reduce the amount of unstructured, non-educational time … the district will struggle with the ability to do so, without adding temporary space or building more permanent space,” warned Phelan.


Belmont Schools Deficit Hits Half-Million Dollars Due to Rising Enrollment, Special Ed Costs

Belmont School District Superintendent John Phelan said the ballooning budget deficit facing the district could be explained by rewording a statement made famous by Bill Clinton’s political advisor, James Carville.

But mindful of the cable audience watching at home, “I won’t say it on television,” said Phelan at the Belmont School Committee’s meeting held Tuesday, Jan. 20.

But it wasn’t hard to decipher what Phelan wanted to say:

“It’s the enrollment, stupid.”

The exploding number of new students – 317 in the past two years as of Oct. 1 – entering Belmont’s six public schools is not just straining the system’s physical assets with classrooms busting at the seems but now is disrupting its balance sheet. The district is struggling to handle a half-a-million dollar deficit in the first six months of its fiscal 2015 budget ending on Dec. 31, according to Anthony DiCologero, the district’s finance, business and operations director.

And there is every indication the red ink the district is wading in has not stopped rising.

Looking at a worksheet DiCologero presented to the committee, it’s easy to identify the single largest budget busting item as costs associated with special education – including tuitions, salaries and transportation – which is running behind the fiscal ’15 budget projections by nearly $1 million, at $945,000. While other line items have seen increases, special ed expenses are by far the budget’s most significant cost driver.

For Phelan, the growing budget imbalance is traced straight back to the skyrocketing student enrollment figures “that is front and center” the towering issue facing the district.

And while the number of children entering the system is rising, the percentage of students requiring mandated student support – subgroups including those not proficient in the English language and SpEd students – is outpacing that number, Phelan told the Belmontonian.

A year ago during the formation of the fiscal ’15 budget, the district forecasted between 81 to 85 SpEd students in Belmont. The current number is 95 students, many requiring a wide array of individualized teaching and learning assistance.

And those expenses are staggering; a look at one-line item, Special Ed tuitions, relays the expenditure pressures in front of the district. A certain number of Special Ed students are placed in an educational setting outside the Belmont and the other municipalities within the multi-town collaborative (LABBB) the district is a member. Those tuitions are a mandated cost the district is required to pay.

Due to the increase in Special Ed students now living in Belmont, a deficit of $125,000 at the end of September has risen to $384,000 in just the subsequent three months, a jump of $269,000 in unanticipated expenses.

Yet effectively predicting future special ed costs is like capturing smoke. School Committee member Laurie Graham said while the actual percentage of student’s needing some special education services have remained relatively level at 13 percent, the actual number has not just risen but is such a moving target that budget planners are making best guesses on how many students will require services.

DiCologero said the current level of students requiring services has been fluctuating on the high end of the estimates and could fall back in line with previous assumptions in the next years.

Nor is there any assurance the deficit has stabilized; in fact, Phelan said the district could see an additional five students requiring special education entering the system in the near future.

The impact of the exploding cost of special education expenses has placed the district “on the razor’s edge” where the shortfall could soon impact teaching, said Phelan.

“It is starting to hit the classroom a bit,” he said.

Phelan said he and DiCologero review every purchase order from teachers and administrators requesting material with the aim of only signing those requests that impact direct classroom instruction.

“We are saying ‘no’ to most $20 requests,” said Phelan.

The tightening will also force the district not to stockpile projections for the district’s interactive SMART Boards – which were brought into all classrooms by a multiyear initiative from the Foundation for Belmont Education – but rather order when they need replacing which could force some classrooms to be without this standard learning device during the wait. In addition, computers will likely be kept for seven years instead of being replaced in five along with other measures limiting technological purchases.

That diligence, along with, not filling sone teaching and staff positions, cost cutting, and other expense controls, has saved the district about $250,000 in the second quarter alone. If not for those efforts, the deficit would have been closer to three-quarters of a million dollars at the end of December.

Moving forward, Phelan and DiCologero said the district will continue with its belt-tightening, knowing that unexpected expenses – a colder than expected winter heating season or emergency repairs to buildings – and more students entering the system will not be offset by any cushion in the budget.

The effort to hold the line on funding is hampering Phelan’s ability to lessen the burden on teachers who have, in both the elementary schools and at the Chenery Middle School, been forced to teach to classrooms with nearly 30 students.

“I believe it is not acceptable to have 25 children in a first-grade classroom. That is the most important grade,” said Phelan, projecting to the 2015-16 school year when this level of students will likely occur.

Speaking to the Belmontonian, Phelan said restrictions on basic supplies and materials along with added requirements for new assessment evaluations and ever increasing student/teacher ratios, “has made the job of teaching much more pressurized and we are seeing that.”

Rising Enrollment, Structural Faults Puts Schools Half-a-Million in Red

It isn’t “the happiest news” the Belmont School Department wanted to give anytime, especially less than two months into the school year, said Laurie Slap, chair of the Belmont School Committee.

If expenditures and trends continue on their current trajectories, the fiscal year 2015 school budget will end the year approximately $500,000 in the red, according to the school’s Director of Finance and Administration Anthony DiCologero.

The forecast, present to the Belmont School Committee at its Tuesday night meeting on Oct. 28, “is not a deficit in any item,” said DiCologero. 

While there isn’t one specific cause, there is an overriding theme to the shortfall facing Belmont’s public schools: the well-noted increase of students entering the system. 

Kevin Cunningham, at his final committee meeting as he will be replaced by the next meeting on Nov. 18, said the expense spike is “enrollment driven” – with the surge of students has come the need for more services “that is driving costs.”

Due to the rapid rise in total enrollment in all grade levels, a jump in children who are English Language Learners and an increase in students requiring special education instruction has placed the budget under pressure as salaries are nearly $225,000 above the $31.4 million budgeted for the fiscal year, noted DiCologero. 

The deficit comes from adding instructors to address enrollment and ELL needs as well increasing the number of special education aides, tutors and occupational therapists.

The remaining $360,000 of the total deficit is the result of an increase in special education expenses such as $125,000 for tuition for six additional out-of-district students (Belmont pupils who are determined will be educated outside the public schools) and $60,000 in added transportation costs.

John Phelan, Belmont’s first-year school superintendent, said he has spoken to administrators, principals and staff on the need “slow down” expenditures such as bringing new technology into the schools and to “prioritize spending.”

But, said Phelan, the “big picture” is “what we need to do differently next year” to prevent repeating the same steps in fiscal 2016.

“These are structural issues,” said Cunningham. And while “this year we’ll strategically shrink it” the deficits will only continue unless expenses are placed in a more long-term context.”

Ready, Set, School! What to Know For the First Day of Belmont Schools

Wake up, sleepy heads! Wednesday, Sept. 3 is the first day of the new 2014-15 school year at each of Belmont’s six public schools! Just 184 more days before the final day on Monday, June 22, 2015. (We know that date is unlikely with snow days sure to come.) 
On day one: 
  • It is a full day for students grades 1-12.
  • No school for Kindergarteners; they begin next week. 
  • It is a Wednesday schedule for all students.

Purchase meals and plans online here.

Belmont High School

Wednesday is Opening Day for Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12: All grades will report to school at 7:35 a.m. for homeroom. Freshmen will report to the Auditorium for a brief assembly at 8:15 a.m. Seniors will report to the Auditorium for a brief assembly at 12:35 p.m. A Quick Reference Guide, including the schedule for Opening Day and the first week of school, has been uploaded to each student’s Edline account. 

The first day of school is a FULL-DAY of classes.

Homeroom assignments for all students will be posted in the main lobby and posted on the Belmont High School website. Students should report to homeroom at 7:35 am where they will receive course schedules and locker information. Homeroom teachers will explain the schedule and answer any other questions. After homeroom, students will attend each class on their Wednesday schedule and meet with teachers.

Start Time: 7:35 a.m.

Dismissal times this year are:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 2:25 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:25 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 10:30 a.m.

Chenery Middle School

Start Time: 7:55 a.m.

Dismissal Times:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday2:25 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:15 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 11 a.m.

Burbank, Butler, Wellington Schools:

Start Time: 8:40 a.m.

Dismissal Times:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday2:50 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:40 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 11:40 a.m.

(1/2 Day Kindergarten: 8:40 a.m. to 11:55 a.m.)

Here is what you’ll need to know about the first day at the Wellington, general info about arriving and leaving the Butler and  the first day at the Burbank.

Winn Brook School

Start Time – 8:50am

Dismissal Times: 

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 3 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:50 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 11:50 a.m.

(1/2 Day Kindergarten: 8:50 a.m. to 12:05 p.m.)


Coffee Talk with Belmont’s New Schools Super This Monday

A tip of the hat to Belmont resident and author of the Blogging Belmont website Paul Roberts for this information. Newly-installed Belmont School District Superintendent John Phelan has been holding coffees with residents through the summer with the next date on Monday, Aug. 18 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Conference Room in the School Administration building located in the Town Hall complex in Belmont Center.

Phelan, who has a quarter century of experience as a teacher, principal and an assistant superintendent in the Boston and Milton Public Schools, has been organizing the forums to hear from parents and community members to help get up to speed on the issues of concern to community members while formulating a plan for the district going forward.

If you can’t attend Monday’s coffee, more are expected to be scheduled in September. In addition, residents can make an appointment to meet with Phelan individually by calling Cathy Grant at 617-993-5401.

Fond Farewell for the Temporary, Interim, Long-Term Superintendent

When State Sen. Will Brownsberger read the proclamation for the Massachusetts Senate honoring Dr. Thomas Kingston, Belmont School District’s longest serving caretaker superintendent, it declared Kingston being “the semi-permenant, interim superintendent” of the school system he ran for the past three years.

“It says that,” said Kingston, before members of  the Belmont School Committee, town officials, educators and residents who came to the Belmont Gallery of Art on Monday, June 16 to thank the educator for his service to the town’s schools.

“It’s been a great three years in Belmont although I didn’t expecting three years in Belmont,” said Kingston, who received a proclamation from the House of Representatives from State Rep. Dave Rogers.

Kingston, who spent seven years as Chelsea’s Superintendent of Schools, was hired in June 2011 for a single year as interim superintendent who file the gap left with the departure of his predesessor George Entwistle.

Yet due to the lack of qualified candidates, his leadership skills and willingness to remain in the position, Kingston’s tenure stretched from one to three years, a time in which observers praised Kingston for his steady hand overseeing the district’s educators and steadying influence during three budget cycles.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to work in this kind of community with this kind of dedication to education which in many ways was a complement to what I was doing in Chelsea,” said Kingston.

“One of the most meaningful things for all of us has not just been the counsel you gave to us but also that you sought the advice of school committee members, the leadership council and people in town about what this community is and that’s a very profound experience,” said Laurie Graham, school committee member who thanked Kingston’s wife, Sue, “for letting us have Tom for the past three years.”

After his extended stay in neighboring Belmont – Kingston is an Arlington resident – he will be working part-time with new superintendents, an experience he likens to being a “utility infielder.”

The celebration included parting gifts – a “Belmont Rocks” T-shirt, an altered magnet that now says “‘Exiting’ Belmont”, and a daily calendar of literary phrases – in addition to a cake that Kingston supervised its distribution.


Town-Wide Student Art Show Up and Running

The Belmont Public Schools Fine Arts Department has announced the opening of the town-wide K-12 Art Show at the Belmont Gallery of Art, running from May 22 through June 8.

The goal of the exhibit is to showcase a sampling of work from the visual arts program and curriculum within the schools, featuring artwork in a wide range of media including watercolor and tempera paintings, ceramics, prints, drawings and three dimensional works.

The exhibit will have its official opening on Wednesday, May 28, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the gallery.

The gallery is are located on the third floor of the Homer Municipal Building, 19 Moore St., in the Town Hall complex in Belmont Center.  The exhibit will be open to the public Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.