Belmont Schools Summer Reading List Targeted By Fox News For Alleged ‘Race-centric’ Curricula

Photo: Fox News has highlighted books on the Belmont Schools Summer Reading List they contend targets ‘Whiteness’

Along with the opening of the Underwood Pool, summer arrives in Belmont when the Public Library releases its summer reading list for the town’s public school students.

Designed to encourage pupils to make reading a habit while raising both their interest in and level of reading, the summer collection runs the gamut from Too Many Cats by Lori Haskins Houran that kindergarteners read with their parents, the fantasy series The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer for middle schoolers and acclaimed novels such as Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits that rising sophomores in the English honors program will pick up.

“The Library and School Department have worked on summer reading lists for many years, long before I arrived in Belmont in 2015,” said Belmont Public Library Director Peter Struzziero. “It’s always been a great partnership that we look forward to every year.”

For all previous years, the list has been the exclusive purview of school-aged students hoping they made a good choice to read on warm summer days. That all changed when late last week, an ominous headline came across computer screens courtesy of the online version of Fox News: “Massachusetts school district pushes grade schoolers to read books about ‘White privilege,’ ‘Whiteness‘.

That district? Belmont, where books, according to the article, that condemns “Whiteness” are in the recommended summer reading list for grade school students “amid a national uproar over race-centric curricula in schools.” The likely furor the article mentions is linked to the teaching of critical race theory, a catch phrase used by conservative groups and right wing media to condemn studying that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

A primer on critical race theory can be found at Education Week.

While there is no evidence that critical race theory is taught in any K-12 district in the country – although some teachers who have participated in a professional development sessions have encountered topic – Fox News has refocused its daily coverage towards allegations of students being bullied for being white and forcing them to attend classes that condemn their race. Since March, Fox News programs have mentioned the topic 1,300 times in a little over a 100 days.

The Fox article, authored by Peter Hasson, said the offending books are within a category titled “Race, Culture, and Activism” that are “recommended” for grade school students including one titled Not my Idea: A Book About Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham.

“The imaginary terms [provided by “the devil” to white children that will] offer “stolen land,” “stolen riches” and “special favors,” explained Hasson. It adds that “WHITENESS gets” “your soul” and “to mess endlessly with the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones and all fellow humans of COLOR.” “The end contains a section for signature and notes [l]and, riches and favors may be revoked at any time, for any reason,'” in Hasson’s summarized.

Other targeted titles include Jenny Devenny’s Race Cars: A Children’s Book About White Privilege and Stamped, by Ibram Kendi, who is described by Hasson as a “far-left academic” who has called for “an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals.”

The Fox article came a day after right-wing activist Christopher Rufo tweeted that Belmont was one of 30 communities in the US – five in Massachusetts – using Not my Idea either in classes or are on reading lists. Rufo’s tactics, research and goals have come under increasing fire. As one critic noted, Rufo “takes critical-race theory as a concept, strips it of all meaning, and repurposes it as a catchall for white grievances.”

Racist email follows ‘whiteness’ claim

Reaction to the Fox article and Rufo’s tweet came quickly as an email saturated with White racist and White supremacist tropes – calling for a “Thank You White People Day” – was sent late on July 8 by a “Brian Jenkins” to each member of the School Committee, the district’s Central Office, the district’s six PTOs and the Friends of Belmont Education.

Responding to the Fox article, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan noted the reading list is created “in partnership with our Public Library and are not assigned by the school department.” rather, it is made up of “suggested titles for families to use at their discretion.”

At the June 29 school committee meeting, Phelan addressed just how the list is developed, with an acknowledgment that “I know there have been some questions about how this process is conducted each year.” The selected books, including those highlighted by Fox, are a collaboration between Belmont librarians, district’s curriculum leaders, elementary school principals and assistant superintendent Janice Darius. The library begins the process by reviewing the list from previous years and adding notable new reads.

“They send a draft of the list to the curriculum leaders to review so it will align with each grades curriculum in representing the diversity, cultural, language and race of our students,” said Phelan. Books are taken off the list because they’re already part of a grade level curriculum, if they should belong to a different grade level’s list or “they may be too controversial,” he said.

It is school curriculum leaders who add new books to replace those titles taken off. “The list is then reviewed by the elementary principals, the assistant superintendent and, finally, through my office as well,” said Phelan. The list is then sent to out to all teachers, families and posted on the district’s website.

“I do not think that it is the School Committee’s role to select which books are on the list. We will continue to listen to and communicate with community members and share input received with the district and library.”

Belmont School Committee Chair Amy Checkoway

Phelan reiterated that the the K-7 list are suggested books for families, and “they are not required reading in any way.” These are suggestions for our kindergarten through seventh grade families. There’s one book on the list that is required of our eighth graders; The Giver by Lois Lowry. All other books on the eighth grade lists are also suggestions, said Phelan.

Responding to the Fox article with the Belmontonian, Struzziero said the books in the targeted category “teach about some of the history of racial injustice in our country and attempt to give messages about equality, justice, peace, kindness and many other themes that we want to inspire in all our students.”

“We hope this list will inspire discussion and learning among our families, provide a way to better understand history, and encourage us all to better understand each other. This is really only a highlight of the many books we have available on these topics,” he said.

Speaking directly at Fox News which he said “took into consideration a certain point of view” in its coverage, Stuzzierio said there’s no shortage of opinions on literature or on education of the young. “I won’t comment on what’s credible or not, all opinions are valuable, and we are always happy to have feedback on how to make the Library and it’s collections the best it can be,” he said.

Placing the books highlighted in the the Fox article in great context, Stuzzierio said many were selected at the culmination of the library’s first-ever Community Read last year with its central focus on antiracism. Partnering with more than 700 residents and groups as varied as Belmont Against Racism, the Belmont Religious Council, the Human Rights Commission and the Belmont Chinese American Association, “the community spoke loudly about the place that we want Belmont today,” he said. “It was joyful, community building, and a healing expression of how Belmont supports itself to be such a great place to live and work. It’s been one of the most inspiring chapters in my career,”

As for moving forward on future lists, Stuzzierio said “we’ve heard from many citizens with feedback on this year’s summer reading list. Most citizens thought it was wonderful and a great accent to the work we do, some others had feedback on titles they thought should be removed from the list, or others still included names of additional titles,” he added.

Resident raises his own concern on summer list

One such resident who has been made his concerns known for the past three years is David Benoit. The retired law enforcement officer has been critical of one specific book used by the district since 2018; The Hate U Give, a young adult novel by Angie Thomas that Benoit contends “teaches that opposing views justify violent destructive riots, assaults, and arson” to “highly impressionable BHS students.” This month, Benoit called out the district for placing on the 2021 summer reading list the book Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard and Jennifer Zivoin, for elementary grades K-5, which he said is “poisoning the minds of young innocent children.”

Benoit’s letter and a short conversation with him will be published on Saturday.

Stuzzierio said the will use “all the feedback to review our lists and see in what ways we may build upon it for next year. We look forward to working with the School Department on this process,” he said. 

Speaking to the Belmontonian, School Committee Chair Amy Checkoway said the committee will continue to listen to and communicate with community members who are supportive of the books and with those who have concerns about some of the books and further discuss these items at upcoming meetings.

While the committee will plan to review the current lists in August, “I do not think that it is the School Committee’s role to select which books are on the list. We will continue to listen to and communicate with community members and share input received with the district and library,” she said.

When asked what the best approach for the school community to confront political-based charges the district is teaching a “race-centric curricula,” Checkoway said everyone needs “to remain focused on efforts that are already underway in the Belmont Public Schools to ensure that all students and staff have the opportunity to be successful and feel welcome, seen, represented, and supported in our schools including through our curricula.”

She added the committee supports a district-wide racial equity audit to be conducted by an outside firm beginning in the summer with a focus on helping to identify what the district and committee are doing well and areas of improvement in a range of areas including school climate, student outcomes, hiring and advancement practices, student discipline, and more.

“I also look forward to welcoming a new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion who will report to the superintendent and provide much needed capacity to advance the district’s equity work and support faculty, staff, students, and families,” said Checkoway.

“There is a lot of good work that is happening and plenty of work that remains.”

[Update] Early Release Monday, Tuesday As Heatwave Shortens School Day; Students: Bring Water, Sunscreen

Photo: Heatwave on tap for the beginning of the week

[Update] For a second day, schools will be dismissed early on Tuesday, June 8, due to the high heat conditions.

Given the current heatwave and concerns for students and staff, the Belmont School District will be dismissing school early Monday, June 7.

  • Belmont High will dismiss at 1:30 p.m.
  • Chenery Middle School will dismiss at 1:15 p.m.
  • Butler, Burbank and Wellington will dismiss at 1:40 p.m.
  • Winn Brook will dismiss at 1:50 p.m.

On Monday:

  • Lunch will be served in all schools.
  • Belmont High School will have morning MCAS as planned.
  • All after school care programs are cancelled.
  • All after school activities are cancelled.
  • Remote instruction will end at these times as well.

With Belmont in the midst of a multiday heatwave (+90 degree F high temperatures) beginning on Saturday, June 5 and lasting until Wednesday, June 9, the Belmont School District will monitor the temperatures inside schools and assess whether or not we may need to dismiss students and staff early from school, according to John P. Phelan,
Superintendent of Schools.

“Please know that if we do choose to shorten the school day next week for heat concerns, we will communicate any change via email and/or automated call,” said Phelan in an email to the school community.

With the heatwave occuring during a week schools are in session, the district reminds students and parents that it is important for students and staff to stay hydrated. School officials recommend everyone bring a water bottle that can be replenished at our fill stations, dress for the weather and wear sunscreen.

“Please see the nursing department’s bulletin sent on May 28 regarding Warm Weather Reminders,” said Phelan.

Latest Rink Configuration OK’d By School Committee; Tennis Courts Remain A ‘?’

Photo: The scheme approved by the school committee for a new skating rink in Belmont

The Belmont School Committee unanimously approved on Wednesday, May 12, the latest design scheme for a new skating/hockey rink located near the present location adjacent to Harris Field.

The joint meeting with the Belmont Select Board did not address a pair of vital issues that still require answers: how to find the $18 million to replace the dilapidated half century old rink, and how to resolve a consistent clarion call of the town’s tennis community seeking to squeeze five courts into a site already bursting at the seams.

“We do need to close this matter out and move the discussion forward. It’s not fair to anyone to just keep dragging it out and providing any group with any false expectations,” said Adam Dash, the Select Board chair who co-hosted the meeting with the School Committee’s Amy Checkoway whose committee controls the land use where the rink would reside.

Responding to a request from the town, Steven Stefton, lead of the sports and recreation practice of Perkins&Will’s Boston office, presented a trio of schemes in which the rink, parking, and three sports fields occupy the area west of Harris Field. In quick order, the most attractive of the plans had the single-sheet rink place adjacent to the commuter rail tracks and Harris Field, about 90 parking spaces with three sports fields occupying the remainder of the land.

Steven Sefton, Perkins&Will

The two-level 45,900 square-foot facility would top off around 35 feet tall. The rink’s program would be quite modest with locker rooms that would be available for hockey and teams playing at Harris Field. The site will also allow for a three sports field configuration with a limited amount of overlap. It would take 15 months to build – the shortest time frame of the three schemes – at a total cost of $20.3 million with a $2.25 million credit from the Middle and High School Building project.

“There’s a myriad of opportunities with this design that we think we could really create a high-performing facility in the future. And then ultimately it’s the most cost-effective solution that can be phased easily,” said Stefton.

Checkoway said while the committee does have a preference on design, it will be necessary to “at some point figures out a way to finance it.”

“This [meeting] is really about holding a place for a potential new rink at some point in the future,” said Checkoway.

But for many of the 100 residents on the virtual meeting, the topic on the top of their agenda was finding some way to place five tennis courts on the site. Belmont High was once the home of ten courts – located on the northeast side of the existing building – before construction began on the new Middle and High School.

A decision in 2017 by the Middle and High School Building Committee in consultation with Perkins&Will (the architects of the new school) eliminated the courts in favor of new fields and parking on the site. In January 2020, the School Committee reiterated the earlier action with a promise to add courts at the nearby Winn Brook Playground.

Dash noted the select board and school committee devised a compromise in which an extra court would be built at the Winn Brook to allow the varsity tennis teams a “home” facility, albeit without changing and restrooms. The Community Reinvestment Committee will present a proposal to Town Meeting in June to pay for a single court at the playground for a total of five.

Not feeling heard

But even with a partial solution at the Winn Brook, “there are a lot of tennis players in town, tennis parents that feel disenfranchised,” said Select Board member Mark Paolillo.

Those advocating a return of courts to the school’s site gravitated towards two possible options, one of which would reduce the number of parking spaces from 90 to approximately 20 and install the courts close to Concord Avenue.

The School Committee’s Mike Crowley said with the need to deal with the climate crisis and for more sustainable approaches to transportation, “I don’t know that I want to see those students driving to school. So I’m looking at that space, I’m seeing tennis court potential.”

Planning Board Chair Stephen Pinkerton was then recognized who said while “it’s aspirational” to limit student driving, the reality is if those drivers are coming and if they can’t find parking at the school, they will on side streets.

Any attempt to reduce parking would require tampering with the agreement between the school district and the Planning Board on parking at the new school. As part of the Site Planning Approval encompassing the entire project, an agreement was reached where the project would have 400 parking spaces with 90 of those spaces located west of Harris Field, a settlement Pinkerton said was hammered out with numerous parties – residents from nearby neighborhoods, transportation groups – involving long and at times contentious dialogue.

In an apparent compromise that would return the high school tennis teams on campus, Select Board member Mark Paolillo raised the point of the need for a junior varsity baseball field west of the campus.

“Can we program around JV baseball so that we can get the tennis courts on the campus,” said Paolillo, noting the popularity of tennis and the removal of half the courts’ town-wide in the past decade.

“It seems strange to me that there are junior varsity fields on the campus and yet we can’t get a varsity sport on the campus and yet we can’t get a varsity sport on the campus,” said resident Lou Miller.

Town and school officials said removing baseball isn’t that simple due to the lack of an appropriately-sized baseball field in town. Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator and recreation director, said moving the JV team to another field “would have a ripple effect” on the high school and town sports teams as it would require altering small diamonds into “90-foot fields” – referring to the number of feet between bases on the standard adult playing grounds – which would affect the playing choices for regional and town baseball teams.

After the committee voted to OK its favorite scheme, it appears a formally installed working group to established to find answers to financing, parking, and land use will be a result of the meeting.

Pink Slips For Seven Belmont Teachers/Staff As School Committee Approves ’22 Budget

Photo: Chair Amy Checkoway led the Belmont School Committee in the fiscal ’22 school budget process

Seven educators and staff – mostly teaching kindergarten – will receive pink slips Friday, May 14, as the Belmont Public Schools finalized $2.1 million in cuts to balance its fiscal year 2022 budget.

“These are real staff that work with us right now,” said Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan at the School Committee’s virtual meeting on Tuesday, May 11. At the end of the presentation, the six member committee unanimously approved the $66.2 million budget which will go before Town Meeting in June for its approval.

Two kindergarten teachers, a pair of kindergarten classroom assistants, a first grade educator, the fourth grade “bubble” classroom teacher and the high school librarian will be let go on Friday.

Belmont Under Austerity

Yet the damage to the Belmont Public Schools isn’t as bad as in the first version of the budget in the aftermath of the defeat of the $6.2 million override in April. In one instance, a total of four existing FTE (full-time equivalent) positions earlier on the chopping block – a math, world language and band/music teachers at the Chenery, and the community service coordinator slot and the now open librarian slot – were saved although the librarian and community service posts will be repurposed by the high school principal to classroom teachers in order to address rising class sizes.

Eight of approximately eleven scheduled new hires – the majority set to alleviate overcrowding at the middle and high schools in the 2021-2022 school year – have been eliminated. But two special education elementary school team chairs were reinstated after the school committee made “a clear, strong indication” said Phelan that these long-time needs were critical in the coming post-COVID years. One of the chairs will be funded using a portion of the district’s annual Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Federal Special Education Entitlement Grant – usually in the range of $125,000 – and freeing up $81,500 to be used elsewhere.

“It just makes sense that we capitalize on that existing idea,” said Phelan. Committee member Meghan Moriarty said that “through some creativity we have the opportunity to hire one for a grant and I … do feel like these positions not only respond to a current need but they are positions that help to build to build some infrastructure that is needed in this department.”

There is a big add this coming school year with the hiring of a district wide equity director. Several parents and residents lobbied the committee to reinstate the position. It also appears the position could be either shared or budgeted completely by the town according to Belmont Town Administrator Patrice Garvin who spoke about such an arrangement on Monday.

The need for the new position is related to claims of incidents of racism are on the rise in Belmont, the chair of the town’s Diversity Task Force Kimberly Haley-Jackson told last Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. “If we want to grow into the equitable and inclusive place it claims to be, I’m asking the school committee to support this position.”

The result of fewer teachers will be higher class sizes in Belmont’s six schools. While the Chenery Middle School is right at the edge of its recommended limit of 24-25 students in each class room while over at the high school which is seeing a large wave ranging from 29 to 33 in social studies and even higher for science.

Sports, extra curriculars in the cross hairs

While there were serious discussion early in the budget reduction process that targeted district athletics and its $1.1 million budget line, Phelan and the committee decided to keep reductions to sports and the large number of clubs, arts groups and extra curriculars at a minimum.

“There’s no better way to connect to the high school than by taking part in a club, an activity or an athletic team. We are try to put as many opportunities out to our freshmen in all of our students to plug in, in this year of any year, when students need to be helped,” said Phelan.

While all high school freshmen and middle school sports survived the budget axe, varsity and junior varsity scrimmages, an equipment manager will be dropped while all new equipment and uniform replacement were cut in half. In addition, the retirement of Jim Davis, the long-time athletic director and head of physical education, will allow the district to hire a part-time interim director this year at a hefty salary cut while restructuring the position for fiscal year 2023.

In visual and performing arts, the small chamber groups at the middle school and the marching band color guard are cut while stipends for the science Olympiad, Belmontian Club, and debate club are gone. The annual Washington DC trip which has been a highlight for eighth graders has been zeroed out.

In the remaining budget line items, money for substitute teacher is trimmed by $80,000 and custodial overtime reduced by $20,000. This year, a total of $270,000 in revolving accounts will be will be transferred to the school’s general fund while $117,000 in texts, material, supplies, expenses and travel will be slashed. The technology department will be level funded with a cut of $35,000 while the district’s contract allowance was reduced by $300,000.

After the committee’s vote ended the most strenuous school budget process in many years, Chair Amy Checkoway told her colleagues that “this process will not end tonight and I’m sure we’ll continue to be talking about budgets starting next week in various ways.”

Wishin’ and Hopin’: While School District Finalizing Cuts, Optimism Remains That Federal Monies Will Save The Day


When Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan was asked earlier this month by the School Committee to “think creatively” in finding ways to fill a $2.1 million chasm in the school’s fiscal year 2022 budget, he need only look back one year for a successful template to the problem at hand.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly interrupted last year’s budget process, Phelan – speaking before the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, April 27 – noted how the district was able to rely on an emergency injection of dollars from Washington DC to allow the schools to keep teachers while moving to a remote and then hybrid education model.

Belmont in Austerity

“We used financial support from the federal government to be able to service the district as best we could,” said Phelan. This year “[w]e’re hoping to do something very similar with fiscal ’22”, by using federal grant money to close a deficit created after residents rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote at April’s Town Election.

But rather than submit to the committee a single fiscal blueprint going into next year, Phelan presented two separate avenues the budget could travel to Town Meeting for a June vote: the current fiscal ’22 operating budget with $2.1 million in cuts and lost positions and several ambitious budgets in which federal funding is used.

“We’re going to explain the budget in two different segments,” said Phelan. “We want to make for sure that there’s a clear distinction in all our minds as to our operating budget … and using one time money to support students and teachers next year.”

School Committee Budget Community Forum

Please join the Belmont School Committee and Administrators for an opportunity to ask questions regarding the Fiscal Year 2022 School Budget.

Tuesday May 4, at 6:30 PM

Please click the link below to join the webinar by computer, tablet or smartphone:

Under a sub headline he called “bad news,” Phelan presented the committee the difficult reductions in what he has long said “makes many students want to come to school”: extra curriculum activities including athletics and the arts.

In sports, $200,000 would be saved with the elimination of ninth-grade teams and cuts up and down the budget – not replacing worn uniforms, reduction in travel expenses, playing only the minimum number of league games – while fully a third of visual and performing arts clubs (four at the Chenery and ten at the High School) would be dropped saving $28,000. Finally, approximately a quarter of a million dollars would be taken from associated revolving funds which totals up to $418,000.

Supplies – the pencils, copier paper and electronics – the necessary day-to-day stores for a school to function efficiently will see significant reductions, from $5,000 to $7,000 at each elementary school to $17,000 at the high school and $18,000 at the Chenery for a total of $57,200.

While the majority of the committee suggested even greater cutbacks targeting sports and the arts could be coming in the near future, Committee Chair Amy Checkoway and newly-elected committee member Meghan Moriarty sought to keep the cuts to a minimum.

“I’m pretty concerned about cutting all freshmen sports in the high school, my sense is that ninth grade is a particularly stressful time academically and with that transition,” Checkoway said, while Moriarty pointed out that athletics and clubs are where “kids are gaining confidence, they learn life-long skills from these endeavors … and how to work together in a band and on a team” suggesting that any major cuts be delayed by a couple of years.

The reductions announced Tuesday are on top of the 11 total FTE reduction of existing staff Phelan provided at the last School Committee meeting two weeks ago. Those salaried reductions – making up 75 percent of the total school cuts – included four elementary teachers, one each from the Middle and High schools as well as a slew of administrator and teacher aides, totaling $635,000. A final determination on the specific teacher and staff member who will be made redundant will be determined next week.

But before those specific reductions are made public, 24 staff and administrative positions that supported the district’s COVID efforts will be pink-slipped on Friday, April 30 while 22 will return to their previous teaching and staffing slots.

Phelan’s “good news” is the possibility of sources of federal funds and any increase in state aid coming from the state legislature above Massachusetts Gov. Baker’s submission that could ease the pain of filling the deficit. He pointed to successfully using federal money last year in fiscal ’21 to pay for the one-year COVID related position and services.

Two sources of funds coming from Washington directed only to schools are the second and third installment of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – known as ESSER funds – in which Belmont is in the process of applying for $1.4 million. Both funds have strict criteria; expenses have to apply to academics and instruction, address unfinished teaching and learning, and social emotional support to address mental health and well being to name a few.

Priority COVID services in ’22

Phelan and the committee have long sought to allocate ESSER II and III money to pay for anticipated services in the COVID related expenses in fiscal ’22. Those items – which Phelan called priorities totaling $876,000 – include:

  • Hiring teachers, aides and supplies to run an “academic recovery” summer school to service all grades ($100,000)
  • Adding a pair of nurses ($163,000),
  • Two social workers for mental health and social emotional learning ($163,000), and
  • Beefing up remote education with teachers, specialists and other material ($450,000)

There are a slew of other costs such as COVID testing, personal protective equipment and the “wedding” tents at each school to allow for outside classes and lunch.

But by only funding the four COVID priority items and redirect money from areas that may not longer be needed – the school committee could determine to eliminate an aggressive testing plan – Phelan indicated the schools would split the hoped for $1.4 million giving $750,000 to the COVID expenses and using $650,000 to restore three FTE positions at both the High and Middle schools as well as filling three Special Education slots.

While rearranging the ESSER funds will allow for the retention of a handful of positions, the greatest wish from the school committee is to get its hands into the most recent pot on money coming Belmont’s way. The American Rescue Plan Act signed in March by President Biden will provide the town upwards of $7.2 million which several committee members and the leaders of the No Override campaign are hopeful the ARP guidelines are loose enough to allow the town – which will receive the funds – to provide the schools with additional monies to apply to the district’s bottom line.

If federal regulators do determine the ARP funds can be optioned whatever way the town wishes, Phelan said he would work with Town Administrator Patrice Garvin to find a way to pay for all COVID costs, fill the $2.1 million fiscal ’22 deficit which will reverse the pink slips to the 11 teacher positions set for next month while restoring the 12 new FTE educator and staff slots which Phelan was anticipating to hire (for $870,000) until the override failed before sitting down and figure out a strategy for using the remaining change over the next two years.

But Phelan readily admits that it remains unknown if – and that is a big “if” – the federal government will allow any or all of the three funding sources to be used beyond reimbursing expenses directly impacted by the COVID pandemic. For example, under the ARP, Belmont can use the funds “to support the public health response and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable economic recovery” by providing “assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, aid to impacted industries, and support for essential workers” and “invest in infrastructure, including water, sewer, and broadband services.” There is no language currently that allows any portion of the $7 million to be transferred for school aid.

A second concern of using any federal funds or additional state aid to save educators positions – a worry championed by Geoffrey Lubien of the Financial Task Force – is that one-time funds are just that, money whose funding cycle ends after a single year and isn’t renewed. Phelan acknowledged that any additional position that could be saved in the coming fiscal year would need to be terminated on the final day of the 2022 school year.

“It’s important to me to say this out loud because when we start to talk about next school year and the potential use of federal funds … those dollars will only be one time dollars and they would not be able to carry into future years,” said Phelan.

But Phelan said despite the limited time frame of those funds, if allowed, he would hire teachers and administrators just for that one year, saying it is similar to someone who has crashed their car and despite having another vehicle ready to go “not using it for the year,” he said.

“We could use any of these (federal) dollars to support some parts of our school for the next year, even if we have to make layoffs in other areas,” said Phelan. “We just have to be flexible.”

All Belmont Public Students Are Back In School On Last Week Of April

Photo: Belmont student will be in classrooms after the Spring break. (Credit: Pixabay)

After two months of in-house analysis and some pressure from the state, all Belmont students will be back in school on the final week of April, according to John Phelan, Belmont superintendent of schools.

“We believe that we’re making really, really good progress so we appreciate everyone’s patience [during the pandemic],” said Phelan, at the Tuesday, April 13 Belmont School Committee meeting.

Chenery Middle School students and teachers will return full time on Wednesday, April 28 and those attending Belmont High School will be back in the on Thursday, April 29. Each school will reopen after the two student cohorts at the Chenery and High School are combined in the hybrid schedule.

Those students learning remotely will attend classes via live stream.

Students in Belmont’s four elementary schools have been in classes both in class and remotely since April 5, an experience so far, Phelan said, “students are doing very well, some kinks to work out for sure.”

Currently 83 percent of students district wide have elected to return to in-person learning at the six Belmont schools. Approximately 17 percent will continue to be taught remotely. Elementary students have the greatest in-person attendance at 91 percent while high schoolers are split 70-30 in-class vs remote.

Phelan told the committee that the district has taken “a real close eye on” the level of community transmission of the COVID-19 before moving towards a full return to in-class education.

In announcing the dates for the reopening, Phelan acknowledged the effort of the 32-member Return to In-Person Learning Working Group which over eight meeting since February drafted sets of “rolling” recommendations to the School Committee and District outlining the steps both in terms of public health and navigating logistic concerns that led to the return of full-time classroom education.

The group – made up of educators, students, parents, members of the Board of Health, School Committee and community – included:

“We truly appreciate the role that everybody brought to this work; the feedback, the healthy suggestions, the debate, the disagreement, and there was disagreement in this committee. There were recommendations that folks felt really good about, and there were recommendations that folks struggle with a little bit in these were hard discussions within our subgroups,” said Phelan.

“This was not all smiles in fun. This was work. This was debate, review and reflection. But ultimately we came up with an outcome that that put students in school in the month of April, to some degree ahead of time. So we’re thankful for their work,” said Phelan, who pointed to the leadership of the Working Group’s facilitators, Harvard-based Michelle Rinehart and Dr. Drew Echelson, who provided the analysis and just the hand-holding required to shepherd the group in its mission.

While finished with its initial goal, the work group will reconvene in May to tackle issues such as remote learning, creating contingency plans in the event of another surge and mapping out a seasonal strategy.

“We did do a little bit of reflecting on what this group could do better next time. How this type of work can serve the district well in any other type of challenge or with any other issues that need to be worked out with community support and feedback. So we think we have a pretty good format for future use,” said Phelan.

Final Day Of The 2020-21 School Year Is …


Now for a little math or maths as it’s known in other English-speaking countries. If students are required to attend 180 days of school and each school districts adds 5 ‘snow’ days to the calendar and there were a pair of actual days cancelled due to weather but the state did not give permission to add 10 days to the beginning of the school year so the required number of days is 170, what is the last day of the 2020-21 school year?

OK, all you need to know that it’s earlier than normal: Wednesday, June 16.

That’s, of course, if there are no more snow days from now until the third week in June. “We’ll knock on wood as we say that. If it snows, I’m sorry,” said Janice Darias, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

‘There’s No Panic On Pleasant Street’: Phelan Resolute In Difficult Year As Educator Pink Slips Coming In May

Photo: John Phelan, superintendent, Belmont Public Schools

It was day two of “Belmont after No” as the town and its residents began coming to grips with austerity being the guiding policy for local governance in the unforeseeable future after voters rejected a $6.4 million override on Tuesday, April 6.

But to Schools Superintendent John Phelan, the reduction of millions in funding and pending teacher and staff layoffs is not going to cripple student learning for the upcoming school year beginning in September.

“There’s no panic on Pleasant Street,” said Phelan, referring to the location of the school district’s headquarters while speaking at a joint meeting of the Belmont School Committee Finance Subcommittee held virtually on Thursday, April 8.

“We’re going to reduce $2 million worth of expenses [but] the school department is not going to fall apart. I want every single family to know that their child will be taken care of next year. School will happen,” said Phelan, who praised both teachers and staff for their dedication to teaching during a pandemic and, now, job firings

Phelan reassured the committee and community that the approaching 2021-22 school year – which will start in person this September at each of the town’s six buildings – will be “on par” with the 2018-19 and “much better” than the current year of remote and hybrid schooling.

That’s not to say the cuts won’t be felt by every student that attends the district, said Phelan.

Cuts in activities and increase in class sizes

“Class sizes will be higher, and there’ll be some parts of your [student’s] day that won’t be available to you with clubs and activities that were in years past, but we will get through this,” said the superintendent.

The reality of the difficult decisions as a result of the austerity budget came when Phelan announced two rounds of RIF – a reduction in force – totaling 22 full-time equivalent positions. On April 30, educators hired in the past year to contend with COVID-related issues will be made redundant.

But it will be on May 15 when the gut punch to the district will be felt as 11 current teachers, staff, and administrators (totaling $635,000) will receive pink slips while an equal number of educators which the district had planned to hire ($870,500 in wages and benefits) will be set aside. The cost of $1.5 million in cuts is the loss of programs and activities, higher class sizes, and fewer teachers.

Just where the cuts will come will be determined this week by the district’s Leadership Council, made up of school principals and administrators. Earlier in the year, Phelan noted the district will not follow a “last hired, first fired” approach when determining who is let go. Rather, it will come down to where the need for teachers is greatest. With middle and high school numbers are expected to continue to grow while early elementary classes – such as kindergarten to first grade – are beginning to stay level, the greatest share of cuts will come from the cohort teaching kindergartens to fourth grade.

In addition, there is growing support in the district and on the committee to hire a new diversity director that is on the chopping block for next year as well as other positions the school committee believes “have value,” said Phelan.

If the committee feels those positions that were being cut or set aside are necessary, that would result in further reduction of teachers and staff beyond the 11 FTEs slated to be fired.

The staff reductions will be accompanied by nearly half a million dollars in cuts to all extra curriculum activities including clubs, music, theater, and sports district-wide. While no decisions on reductions have been made, discussions in the past few months pointed to possibly eliminating freshman sports teams while creating “intermural” programs in arts, music, and theater.

Revenues remain ‘fluid’

If there is a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered budget it was highlighted by Phelan and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin at the Warrant Committee Wednesday night acknowledging that funding for both schools and town “remains fluid.” Both point to the Massachusetts State Legislature which has yet to present its version of the 2022 state budget which includes Chapter 70 Local Aid. In addition, the town has been allocated $7.2 million in the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden in March.

Yet the state legislature has yet to show any indication local aid will deviate far from Gov. Baker’s proposed $12.5 million to Belmont which the town is using as a placeholder in its budget calculations. And the federal government remains quiet on issuing guidelines for using the $7.2 million.

Even before the state legislature acts and the guidance on the ARP comes down, Phelan is in early talks with Garvin on possibly using those funds to “fill in the gap” in the school budget.

An example of this approach would be “to parlay those federal dollars into services that would help students in lieu of something that we might have to reduce” such as hiring a high school social worker to help with mental health issues related to the pandemic, said Phelan.

“We have a discussion with the town if there’s any way that the $7 million can be used for COVID-related issues,” said Phelan. “We know it’s really going to come down to whether or not those definitions of the four areas of expenditures for the town” which include responding to the coronavirus health impacts or economic impacts.

Witness IDs Teen/Preteen As Writer of Racist Graffiti At Wellington

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School

A resident told Belmont Police he witnessed a young man between 11 and 13 years old tagging a wall of the Wellington Elementary School where racist graffiti was discovered a few days later.

According to a statement by Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac released on Friday, April 2, an adult told police that on Saturday, March 28 at approximately 7 p.m., they observed the young man writing on the wall of the school. The witness asked the youth if he was responsible for graffiti on the wall near the flag pole.

Two days later, on March 30 at 4 p.m., Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan notified the Belmont Police that students discovered the graffiti that contained the words, “Math is F…ing (illegible) my ‘N-word’.”

At this time, the Belmont Police believe this youth was the one responsible forpage1image22307072

“The Belmont Public Schools and the Belmont Police emphasize that whether these words were written with malicious intent or out of ignorance, we are taking this incident very seriously and it is an act that must be strongly condemned. There is no place for hate or racism in Belmont,” said MacIsaac.

At this time, the Belmont Police Department is continuing its investigation.

The Belmont School Department has notified all families of this incident and is working with its Wellington team to discuss this incident with students in an age-appropriate manner.

McIsaac added that residents who have concerns or feel targeted by hate or racism may contact the Belmont Police or the Belmont Human Rights Commission at 617-993-2795 or email at

Statement: Belmont Education Association Addresses Its Approach To Teaching In COVID

Photo: The logo of the Belmont Education Association

In the past year as the Belmont School District has been adapting long-standing standards of learning and teaching in response to a once-in-a-century pandemic, one group consciously quiet during that time has been the teachers and staff and their labor representative, the Belmont Education Association.

As the School Committee and district administration has been the face of the ever-changing strategies to mitigate COVID-19 in Belmont’s six schools while keeping learning a priority, teachers have been in the background, only rarely breaking their vow of silence as parents and students began questioning educators and the BEA for being perceived as obstacles to the return of students to the classroom.

But in a response to a series of questions – they can be found at the bottom of the article – from the Belmontonian, the union issued a statement addressed the reasons behind its approach to teaching in a time of pandemic and discussing its view on key issues facing teachers and the union moving forward.

The Belmont Education Association statement:

A year ago, the Belmont Public Schools and the Belmont Education Association entered into a collaborative process to address issues related to instruction during a pandemic. Health & Safety, Social-Emotional Well-being, and Academic Engagement were our shared priorities for remote and then hybrid learning. Belmont’s options were limited as we faced the lean resources of space and personnel to operate safely in person. As educators, lacking statewide guidance, certainty, and evolving recommendations, we worked through interest-based conversations for eight months to effectively make decisions. This changed in November when we entered into formal bargaining. Formal bargaining forced us to work through all the issues in a tight timeframe with little opportunity to understand our myriad and changing interests and priorities and no chance to pilot our ideas.

As a union, our approach has always been to increase transparency and partner with the community to support our students. Our requests for open bargaining (inviting all community members to attend negotiations) are consistently rejected, so we sought other opportunities to connect with parents through PTOs and community forums. Transparency and mutual understanding are important for all constituent groups moving forward. We are committed to an approach that includes all community members in a conversation about what is best for the Belmont Public Schools.  

At times it’s tempting to see the union as one person, but in reality, it is the school employees – union members whom parents see every day – who are the decision-makers. Members actively guide and determine our positions. We have expanded transparency and improved internal conversations by including ever more teachers, administrators, administrative assistants, and professional aides in bargaining. We understand that this has not been the same experience for parents. In retrospect, we should have included members of the Belmont School Committee and parent community in our Joint Labor-Management Committee meetings.

Moving forward, we will continue to prioritize CDC guidance for ventilation, correct use of masks, and physical distancing (at least six feet) as the most important mitigation measures for in-person learning.  Surveillance testing and vaccines are also essential considerations as we expand in-person learning. We remain committed to our students and each other’s Health & Safety, Social-Emotional Well-being, and Academic Engagement. 

Questions submitted to the Belmont Education Association

1. The CDC has stated “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.” When will the BEA consider Belmont schools “safe” for full-time in-school learning? Is it when all the measures in the CDC roadmap or some other matrix to reopening schools are met? Why is it taking so long to reach these goals?
2. How important is teachers’ vaccination to meeting the level of a “safe” workplace?
3. Are attempts to reduce the six-foot social distance requirement a “deal-breaker”? 
4. The school district has created a working group – the Return to In-Person Learning Group – to make recommendations and a plan to bring all students back to school full-time. Is this the correct approach to take or would the BEA accept a more direct, faster approach from the superintendent or school committee to open schools?
5. The level of animus with some parents/residents towards the BEA and some teachers have reached a level last seen when teachers called a work action in 1995. “Why does the BEA have so much power”, “The town should follow science and not the union” and “There needs to be a lockout of the teachers union” are just a few comments on a popular Facebook page. Those parents believe the BEA is the chief impediment to full-time, in-school learning in the district, either by slow-walking negotiations or being overly cautious. 1). What misconceptions do these parents have of the union’s position/power in returning students to school full-time? 2. Do you believe it was the right approach to remain silent to the public – not on negotiations with the school committee but on general views of teaching during a pandemic? 3). Do you believe that the BEA will need to reach out to parents/residents to work towards improving the relationship it had pre-pandemic?