A Request For Your Vote: Tara Donner, School Committee

Photo: Tara Donner is the incumbent in the race for a seat on the Belmont School Committee

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

All students deserve an excellent education. 

This last year has created unprecedented challenges, tremendous inequities, and unparalleled obstacles for the education system beyond any we have known. 

I am running for re-election to the Belmont School Committee because my role as an active public school educator teaching in the COVID environment, a BPS parent, a long-time Town Meeting Member, and an experienced School Committee member give me a unique perspective to move the Belmont Public Schools forward now and post-pandemic.

An effective School Committee member needs not only passion and ideas, but also the experience and skills to translate that passion into action. From my time growing up in Milton when I served as the student representative to the School Committee and as a 21 year-old Town Meeting Member, through my 17 years teaching middle school, and in my 20 years in Belmont, including 14 as a Town Meeting member, I’ve cultivated deep perspective about the needs of a student-centered school system. My work as a teacher during COVID is paramount to my understanding of the challenges students are facing, and their broad range of pandemic experiences. Supporting students in a virtual learning environment gives me the skill set to listen effectively to all voices, including the quiet ones, and to seek out those voices that don’t feel empowered to speak up. 

The School Committee is facing many challenges. We must support the school department in executing a full return to in-person school over the next several weeks, while maintaining a meaningful remote learning program for families that need it. Even after the upcoming transition to full in-person learning, important work remains. The needs of each student will be larger than ever before, and it will take the careful oversight by experienced educators to make sure the district has a comprehensive plan of targeted support for each student. We must ensure summer school recovery programming is ready for students who have struggled this year. We must make sure that plans for the in-person opening of school for next year are educationally sound, as well as COVID-safe. 

Despite the scale of immediate concerns, we cannot lose sight of the non-pandemic educational vision for our district so that we continue to build 21st century skills in our learners. 

  • We need to decolonize our curriculum and establish a fully inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist community. The Equity Subcommittee, which I co-founded, is a good start. I’d like to continue what we started: completing the district Equity Audit, partnering with a wider range of community members, and making sure our teaching staff reflects the diversity of our community and wider world. 
  • Though we successfully eliminated full-day kindergarten fees this year for the first time since the program’s inception, our fees for music, athletics, transportation, and other activities remain quite high. I’d like to make further progress reducing the undue burden of fees on families with school-age children. 
  • We need to ensure after-school care is fully available for any family who needs it. The after school care programs have struggled tremendously during COVID, and the School Department must work with them so families have access to the after school care they need. 
  • The Chenery Middle School solar array installation must be completed as one piece of the school department’s role in meeting Belmont’s Climate Action Goals. 

My School Committee service has given me specific knowledge about the challenges our schools face. We need to pass the override, AND we need to resolve the structural funding deficit that limits the resources needed to educate our students and support the entire community with needed services. My years serving on Town Meeting give me a deep understanding of the budgetary needs of all the departments in town and the ways in which many of the services our town provides for all ages are impacted by limited funding. Diversifying our income stream as a town is critically important so that we can fully fund our schools and seniors can afford to stay in their homes. 

None of this is easy. With your vote, I will continue to devote myself to these goals as I have for the last three years. I would be honored to have your vote on April 6th.

A Request For Your Vote: Meg Moriarty, School Committee

Photo: Meg Moriarty is running to fill a seat on the Belmont School Committee

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

The Belmont School Committee has lost the trust of the community. Since the COVID crisis began last year, they have been discussing options and obstacles instead of prioritizing learning. If there are problems, the School Committee must solve them. It must act to provide the best possible education for our children.

I am running for School Committee because I want to restore trust in the School Committee by solving the problems facing Belmont. I want to do this by engaging and being transparent with the community and by making our children’s education our highest priority. My experience in managing budgets, working with teachers and students of all abilities and cultural backgrounds, assessing educational programs, and serving as Butler PTA president and a Town Meeting Member makes me a strong candidate for the position.

The School Committee must also do its part to address Belmont’s fiscal crisis. It must identify and cut inefficiencies and collaborate with other town committees. And it must explain to the Belmont community how it uses town financial resources to fulfill its mission of educating our students.

Parents, friends, and former School Committee members have encouraged me to run because of my deep involvement in educational issues as a parent, volunteer, and owner of a small education consulting business. For three years, I served on the Butler PTA, including two years as president, where I worked with other parents, teachers, and administrators to build a strong community. I understand school and town concerns and our financial constraints. And as owner of an education research and evaluation business, I have experience planning, creating partnerships, and budgets. 

In addition, I have more than twenty years’ experience in the Massachusetts education community and a doctorate in education. Early in my career, I ran a Boston University science outreach program for middle and high school students that served dozens of Massachusetts school districts. Later, at the Museum of Science in Boston, I wrote grants and managed outreach programs for underrepresented students and teacher professional development. Today, I teach best teaching practices to MIT graduate students and I own and run an education research and evaluation business, consulting for school districts, universities, and private organizations. I will bring these skills and experience to the School Committee.

Our School Committee has not responded to the COVID-19 crisis with urgency or vision. Last May, school committees in nearby towns began planning for students to return to school, declaring that they could not wait for guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to get kids safely back in school. They presented preliminary re-opening plans in July and August. Other Massachusetts school districts created remote learning academies with administrators and teachers dedicated to teaching remote students. In contrast, the Belmont School Committee voted to start with remote instruction in September and it appears they are moving to full in-person learning for students only in response to orders from DESE. Their delayed planning has forced students who must remain remote due largely to health reasons into classes taught by new teachers.

Our students have suffered academically and emotionally because of the School Committee’s inability to act and its broken decision-making process. Throughout this year, families and teachers have learned of decisions through last-minute emails about scheduling. The School Committee also oversaw elimination of the Chenery Middle School math acceleration program without explaining upfront why the program was eliminated. School Committee meetings have lacked open discussion and debate among the members, making it difficult for the community to discern why they vote in favor or against these issues. 

Any decision affecting our students should be made after careful consideration of complete and correct data, community input, and open debate. Rather than engaging in open debate, consulting with neighboring school committees, learning best practices, or implementing effective plans, the Belmont School Committee continued to study, propose, and discard new schedules without implementing them. These delays have hindered teachers’ abilities to respond to the academic and social emotional needs of our students.  

Belmont has always supported its schools. It deserves a School Committee that preserves and enhances that tradition in a transparent, respectful, and decisive manner. I ask for your vote on Tuesday, April 6.

Meg Moriarty, Candidate for School Committee


Letter To The Editor: Demonstrate Your Anger And Dissatisfaction – Vote No On The Override

Photo: Letter to the editor

Letter to the editor:

We are all stressed these days. We are working from home, learning from home, socialize online and managing many emotions. We transform every room in the house from dining room to classroom to board room and beyond. Everyone is tired and we yearn for how things used to be. 

But do we really want things to go back to “normal”? Regardless of how you interpret this question, I hope we do not return to how things used to be. If we have learned anything through this pandemic, how it used to be doesn’t work. Blindly throwing more money at a problem does not solve the problem.  

Since the day we closed schools down more than a year ago, our administration and school committee have failed our students and families. The School Committee was not and still is not up to the task at hand. Its primary role is to negotiate with the Belmont Education Association (BEA) which they have utterly failed to do over and over this year. 

Teachers must also take part of this blame. Although many teachers have worked hard to transition to remote learning, others have chosen politics, toed the line and committed a grave disservice to the students they are supposed to serve. Shame on them. 

Our families are left in dismay and frustrated; the ones who are able are running for the hills, searching for solutions outside the district in any way they can. Those remaining are engaged in arguments of spending more money because they do not see a better way forward, despite the negative impacts on many of our families that are barely making ends meet. We are a year into a pandemic, which is by no means near its end. Our parents and students are understandably dissatisfied and have a right to be upset, but where should this frustration be focused? The leadership, “lack of funding,” or should it be something else that is goes below the surface? 

I have run twice for town office in two years. Both times with the position of reducing our overall town spending. No one wants to run on a platform to reduce spending which is admittedly an uphill battle, but one I believe must be undertaken. Even those who are in favor of the proposed override, agree that we lack fiscal oversight and management in town. Everyone agrees that we spend more than our revenue. Everyone agrees the town deficit is an inherited from generations of the past.

What we cannot agree on is how we fix the problem. There are many ways we can come together to solve this problem. However, this ridiculous push to continuing to spend our way out of a deficit is not sustainable. This approach will never force change upon our leadership and will forever be a financial burden on families.

I agree with Jeff Liberty’s Letter to the Editor published in the Belmontonian on March 21. Everyone is exhausted with the same conversations and arguments every single election. What I do not agree with; however, is electing the same people again and again or replacing leaders with their cronies that prevent to town from moving forward to create meaningful change for the betterment of our town and our educational system.

I understand and agree someone like me who is outspoken and takes unpopular opinions can be a scary decision at the ballot box. After years of ineffective meetings, committees, communication, and lack of good decision making, it is time to demand change. It’s time to hold our current leaders and their mistakes accountable with your vote.  

Voting either yes or no for the override will have real consequences. Ask yourself: will your family, friends, and neighbors still be able to live here after you cast your vote? Will you be able to look them in the eye and tell them you voted yes or no? Will your vote truly create fiscal control? A no vote gives us a real opportunity for change. A yes vote ensures the status quo. 

The town argues that current services are unsustainable in the current environment. I disagree. We are delaying hard but inevitable choices, structural changes that must be made. These changes must be made despite the outcome of the vote. Our community relies on us, collectively, to work together for the greater good. We want great teachers – we have many – we want to support our seniors to age in place – some are – and we want to have inclusive community – we are definitely not there yet. 

Years of ineffective leadership and mismanagement have taken us to where we are today. This is a simple and undeniable fact, and one we talk about during every election cycle. We have historically underfunded our schools and town departments because of, not despite of, the mismanagement of funds, which has caused division within our community. 

Challenges can also bring a community together, and because of this I am hopeful. The challenges we face are clear and defined, and therefore resolvable. This will require trust in each other and accepting new ways of thinking.  

The conclusion should be simple. Vote no against the override on April 6. Demonstrate your anger and dissatisfaction with our town’s leaders. Show you want real accountability and demand a clear, actionable plan for our collective future. Show you want a School Committee that will strongly negotiate for all our children and get them back in school. Show you want Town Meeting members that will put your precincts interest before their own. Show the Select Board that fiscally responsibility is a priority. And show you matter; demand this now.  

Timothy Flood, Wiley Road, Candidate for School Committee

Opinion: Protect Our Town Employees and Seniors With A ‘Yes’ Vote On The Override

Photo: A vote to pass the override will ensure seniors and town employees are protected

ln his guest column in a local publication dated Feb. 18, “Please Join Me ln Voting ‘Yes,” former Selectman Ralph Jones suggests ways of reducing town expenses including asking town employees to help pay for them. He wrote “reducing compensation through union negotiations would depend on the expiration dates of existing contracts.”

ls it fair or appropriate for Jones, or any elected official or administrator in town including the Select Board or the town administrator, to expect town employees, through a reduction in compensation or benefits, to help pay for the ongoing increases in town expenses?

Residents, administrators and elected officials regularly advocate for new services and facilities but we are reluctant to pay for them and are dismayed when we receive our new real estate tax bills. We, as a town voted, through our town meeting members, for an expensive new high and middle school. Now we have to pay for it.

Regarding additional school services, Jones writes “increasingly, schools also are not simply educating students, they are also caring for their social and emotional needs. This expands the type of employees that must be part of the school system.” I agree with him and will be voting for the override in April.

As residents, we Belmontians want excellent services and top flight facilities and we have them. We want our schools to be among the best in the state. As taxpayers many of us are shocked and angry at how expensive our excellent quality of life costs us.

The town has a limited commercial tax base so we residential taxpayers have to rely on ourselves to fund the facilities and services we choose to have. Going forward, I see overrides every several years as an uncomfortable but routine aspect of living here.

For years there has been talk of helping seniors, who may be having trouble paying their real estate taxes, stay in their homes but I’m not aware of any follow through regarding this issue. ln order for overrides to be successful I believe this issue needs to be effectively addressed.

Our town employees are an integral and valued part of our community. They contribute to our quality of life in ways we often do not notice. I’m in favor of the police and fire department employees keeping their Civil Service protections and of fair compensation and benefits for all town employees.

Dick Madden
Retired Town Meeting Member
Pleasant Street

Opinion: At This Crossroads, Why School Funding Matters

Photo: Why school funding is critical now

By Stephanie J. Crement

I have been a public-school educator for the past 22 years and currently work as a middle school special educator. I have two children at Butler Elementary School, where I believe they have received and continue to receive an excellent education. However, we are now at a crossroads in our town, and I am very concerned that if we do not pass the override on April 6, our schools will be unable to maintain the high quality of education from which my children and many others have benefitted.

We talk about how we value education in Belmont, yet Belmont spends less than other towns in Massachusetts in nearly every category of the school budget. Belmont is already in the bottom three percent in Massachusetts in number of teachers per 100 students (class size) and in the bottom six percent in Massachusetts in per pupil expenditure. A failed override would make our teacher-student ratio even worse. That funding – or lack thereof – plays out in real ways in the classroom.

One way funding plays out is with class size. In my experience, class size DOES matter. To be sure, highly skilled teachers know how to manage large classes and to differentiate to meet the needs of many students with various needs. But those who say that the size of the class does not significantly affect the experience of the student and the teacher have spent little time in actual K-12 classrooms. The more students there are in the classroom, the less individual attention each student receives during the school day.  During a 57-minute class period, there simply isn’t time for a teacher to check in with 28 students individually. Large class sizes mean fewer opportunities for students and teachers to connect, for students to get feedback, and for students to ask questions and have those questions answered. There is less time for teachers to discover students’ passions and to assess where students might be struggling.  

What is less obvious is that with each additional student, a teacher’s workload increases exponentially. It can mean an additional 30 minutes per child spent reading an essay or grading a math assessment and writing constructive feedback. It can mean an additional hour preparing for, holding, and following up after a parent-teacher conference for each additional child. It’s not that teachers are unwilling to do this. In fact, every Belmont Schools educator who has taught our two children has worked well beyond contractual hours to prepare lessons, communicate with us, and give our students feedback. Moreover, children’s needs extend beyond academics. When our high school cannot hire a social worker, it doesn’t mean that children don’t bring their concerns to school.  It means that helping students work through problems is another part of what teachers and other school-based staff members do, putting additional stresses on their time.

What Belmont doesn’t have in dollars, my children’s dedicated teachers at Butler make up for in energy, hard work, and time.  However, time is a limited resource.  At some point, it just runs out. With increasing enrollment, we will not be able to maintain the quality of education upon which Belmont prides itself, and we certainly won’t be able to make improvements and add new programs. If the override fails, it is our students who will suffer. 

Some might say that research about class size is inconclusive. Let me tell you what is NOT inconclusive:  the importance of the teacher. In fact, it is incredibly well-documented that the most important school-related factor that affects student achievement is teacher quality. Just because our Belmont educators and administrators have worked with fewer resources than our neighboring schools does not mean that we should continue to underfund our schools. Just because the best teachers make it look easy does not mean the burden isn’t heavy. Without this override, I fear that the work will be too heavy to bear, and our schools will not be able to maintain their reputation for excellence.  

We will not be able to retain high quality, experienced educators with large class sizes and without the resources that most other districts around us can offer.  We will not be able to attract more teachers of color to join an overwhelmingly white teaching staff when they can choose districts with smaller class sizes and more resources.

Our lean school budget is not a source of pride or a sign of fiscal responsibility. It means that our children, especially those with learning differences who often need extra time and specialized instruction, aren’t getting what they need and deserve. As a special education professional, I was particularly  shocked to learn that our elementary schools do not have Special Education Chairs. Children who receive special education services have Individual Education Plans (IEP), legally binding documents that outline how the child learns and the services, accommodations, and modifications the student requires as well as the goals that the child is working to achieve. Special educators spend time assessing students, differentiating for student needs, modifying curriculum, and providing accommodations so that students can be successful and master their IEP goals. These are practices in which all good teachers engage. Another facet of a special educator’s job is completing compliance related paperwork.  This paperwork is critical for our students on IEPs to ensure they are receiving the services they need. It is also very onerous and time intensive.  Without Special Education Chairs, those responsibilities fall solely on the teachers and school psychologists. This often leaves those educators with even less time to prepare lessons or provide feedback to students. Hiring special education chairs is not an extra; it allows classroom teachers to devote their time to the job of teaching. 

I hear people say: Belmont students have done well, so why do the schools keep asking for more? For my family, like many others I know, the excellent reputation of the school system is one of the reasons we moved to Belmont.  Many Belmont students do well on standardized tests, an important but very limited measure. However, I’ve spoken with many parents and caregivers of students who receive special education services, or even those who might not have been identified, who say their students are not receiving all the services they need. That’s not because the teachers who work with them are not excellent or hardworking. It’s because our system does not have the capacity to do more. An education system that prides itself on being excellent must be committed to serving ALL students, not just those for whom learning comes easily.  

For years, Belmont educators have done so much with very little, but this isn’t a trip to the dollar bin at Target. It isn’t a game where we try to get as much as we can with as little as possible. These are our children’s futures.  If we say we value education, it’s time that the funding we provide truly reflects that sentiment.  

Please vote yes for the override on April 6.

Stephanie J. Crement

Harris Street

Let The Races Begin: Here Is The 2021 Belmont Town Election Ballot

Photo: The ballot has been set for the Belmont Town Election, 2021

Races for School Committee, Board of Health and Housing Board highlight the 2021 Belmont Town Election as Town Clerk Ellen Cushman closed the nomination process at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16.

Five candidates, including the two incumbents – Tara Donner and Evelyn Gomez – will be seeking the pair of seats on the school committee. The race will pit the current committee’s “safety first” approach to introducing students back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic against a pair of candidates – Meghan Moriarty and Jamal Saeh – who believe children can safely be placed back in classrooms now.

One town-wide office that will not be contested is the Select Board as three-term board member Mark Paolillo will return to the three-person council since retiring in 2019. Also, Mike Widmer will be seeking his 13th one-year term as Town Moderator.

Over on the Town Meeting side of the ledger, both precincts 5 and 6 will have a donnybrook on Election Day, April 6, as 15 candidates will be seeking 12 seats. The number of open seats that will require write-ins this year is limited to Precinct 7 with three 3 year openings and a partial 2 year opening in Precinct 4.

The Town-wide offices up for grabs on April 6 include:

* = incumbent

Moderator (1 year)

Mike Widmer *

Select Board (one for 3 years)

Mark Paolillo

Board of Assessors (one for 3 years)

Charles Clark

Cemetery Commissioners (one for 3 years)

Ellen O’Brien Cushman *

Board of Health (one for 3 years)

Stephen Fiore *

Adienne Allen

Housing Board (one for 5 years)

Anne Mahon *

Tommasina Olson

Housing Board (one for 4 years)

Sarah Bilodeau

Library Trustee (two for 3 years)

Elaine Allgood *

Corinne McCue Olmsted *

School Committee (two for 3 years)

Tara Donner *

Timothy Flood

Evelyn Gomez *

Meghan Moriarty

Jamal Saeh

It Won’t Be Pretty: Consequences Of A Failed Override Prompts Select Board To Endorse Its Passage


The date: April 6, 2021. The time: 9(-ish) p.m. The location: Belmont Town Hall. Town Clerk Ellen Cushman strolls out from her office to read the results of the annual Town Election. After going through the races for elected positions, she comes to what residents have been waiting for – the decision on the $6.4 million Proposition 2 1/2 override. Cushman clears her throat and reads out the count.

And the measure … fails.

The first question for many people will be: “Now what?”

On Monday, Feb. 8 – just under two month from the above election – the Belmont Select Board and residents were provided an answer to The Day After scenario as Town Administrator Patrice Garvin spelled out the rather dark consequences of a no vote throughout the fiscal year 2022 budget.

“There’s no way to sugar coat it really. They’re all painful which is way we asked for an override,” said Board Chair Roy Epstein.

While Belmont not yet on the level of the four horsemen of fiscal apocalypses, the certainty of cuts in services and personnel as well as still to be determined retreat on school programs, the Select Board unanimously voted to endorse passage of the Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 6 ballot.

Note: On Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m., the Warrant Committee is holding a Zoom public meeting on “Understanding the Override Decision” that will present the impact of a yes and no override vote.

After reporting last month how a yes vote on the override would be used by the town and schools. the town proceeded to run a budget exercise on the impact of a negative response by voters. With expenditures of $163 million as opposed to revenues of $157.2 million, the town would need to fill a $5.7 million gap.

Garvin said a little more than a third of the gap would be bridged using an additional $1.9 million from free cash – the last of the reserves not reserved by town policy – and taking $350,000 of the $400,000 OPEB contribution. The remaining $3.45 million would be made up reducing town and school expenditures, 60 percent – or $2.07 million – coming from the schools and 40 percent ($1.38 million) from the town.

On the town side, cuts would come from all departments (see the chart below) as well as removing $500,000 from discretionary capital expenditures that was targeting much needed maintenance and infrastructure repairs.

Cuts to town departments with a negative override vote. (Credit: Town Administrator Office)

Garvin pointed out that long sought after positions such as a social worker for seniors and a new procurement employee to manage the increasingly complex nature of bidding and preparing projects such as the new Middle and High School.

“We really do need someone who has the expertise, who can move through the commissioning process as [the new school building] gets handed over and can run all the town buildings more efficiently,” said Adam Dash, board member. “I fear that if we don’t have that person in place, it will actually cost us more money because the systems won’t be run properly.”

Other departments will see significant reduction in salary and overtime requests while Police, Fire and DPW will see the loss of at least one staff member which will reduce response times for public safety and less work done at town fields and playgrounds.

The board’s decision to endorse a yes vote was expected, “especially in light of these pretty draconian and grim looking cuts. It’s going to be a difficult situation if it doesn’t pass,” said Dash.

While the school cuts will be announced on Tuesday, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan told the Financial Task Force on Monday morning that the schools would loss the 10.6 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions they had planned to add in 2022 as well as 15 additional staff members and cuts in many line items.

If the April override fails, the town is looking at a second override for the Town Election in 2022. Quick calculations by the Financial Task Force on Monday morning indicated that the subsequent override would be in the range of $10.8 million over three years, give or take a million either way.

Paolillo Seeks A Fourth Act To Help Beat Back A Pair Of Fiscal Challenges

Photo: Mark Paolillo

Mark Paolillo will try to prove – in the political sense – Thomas Wolfe wrong: You can return home to elected office.

Paolillo has taken out nomination papers for a return to the Select Board (it was called the Board of Selectmen when he last served) as he will seek a fourth three-year-term after current board member Tom Caputo announced he would not seek re-election, believing he has the background and experience to help Belmont beat back the twin adversaries of a long-term structural deficit and the budgetary impact of COVID-19.

A life-time Belmontian, Paolillo served three consecutive stints on the board beginning in 2010 when he topped a three person field with 45 percent of the vote. He decided in 2019 that nine years was plenty representing Belmont residents.

“Nine years is a long time and it’s time to move on,” he said at the time.

Not that Paolillo had completely retreated from local goverance. In fact, he was been busy around town hall (and on Zoom calls) since leaving the board, most notably serving on the influential Financial Task Force II – which last month recommended a $6.4 million override to be placed on the April 6 town election ballot – and as chair of the police chief search committee.

But when he heard Caputo was not running for a second term, Paolillo decided to place his hat once again into the ring. As Paolillo tells it, he wasn’t considering running this cycle.

“No, not at all. I was hoping Tom would run for re-election and told him that. I would have endorsed his candidacy,” he told the Belmontonian. In fact, he was attempting to recruit people he knew who might be interested in the job.

“When I learned about Tom’s plan prior to his announcement, I reached out to some individuals that have  strong financial and leadership skills that would bring diversity to the Board about running. They are not interested at this time.”

With no takers, Paolillo has launched a campaign with an eye on easing the pressures on the town finances.

“We are in a fiscal crisis as a community. I have the institutional knowledge, deep experience and financial skills to help our town navigate thru it,” said Paolillo, who pointed to three major issues that must be tackled.

“Clearly we are in a midst of a pandemic, so the health and safety of our residents is of paramount concern. [Belmont is] in a financial crisis which needs to be addressed and dealt with so we need to focus on long term financial and structural reform,” he said.

“And we need to work more closely with the School Committee and school administration to support their efforts in getting our students back on campus and learning in the classroom,” Paolillo noted.

Select Board Approves Placing $6.4M Override On April’s Town Election Ballot

Photo: An override will be on the April 6 town election ballot.

The Belmont Select Board unanimously accepted the Financial Task Force’s recommendation to place a $6.4 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 6, 2021, town election ballot.

While the vote comes in the midst of a year long pandemic which has wounded the local and national economy, there is few alternatives other than huge cuts in town services – with massive layoffs – and a retreat on nearly a decade of investments in teaching and student growth.

“It’s never the right time or a good year to ask for this … but the situation has put us in a point where we have no choice,” said the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

Select Board’s Tom Caputo, who also chaired the Task Force, said working for the past two years using a multi-year financial forecasting modeling tool from the Collins Center at UMass/Boston to help make more precise results from projections and data allowed him to “appreciate the financial challenges ahead of us and the importance of an override to maintain fiscal stability for the town.”

I am very comfortable with the recommendation that we brought to the town,” he said.

If approved by voters, homeowners would see a $900 pop in property taxes on the “average” valued house pegged at $1.25 million.

The override amount is approximately half the $12.5 million the Select Board approved back in July.

“I think that’s progress,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board.

Flush with nearly $11.2 million in free cash certified by the state – an amount historically higher than most years through minimizing expenditures during last year’s COVID crisis – and the recent forecast of state and local revenues will be higher than pervious years, town will leverage the onetime windfall to help moderate the override’s size, said Caputo.

After setting aside portions of free cash according to decade long town guidelines, the town will take $8.2 million in free cash and spread it over three years from ’22 to ’24. Include $3.2 million in additional state aid in fiscal ’22 split between fiscal years ’23 and ’24.

The task force forecasts that Belmont would be facing a debt of $8.3 million by fiscal ’24 on an annual budget of $166.7 million.

The override would allow the town to support a “minimal level service budget” as it will maintain town services with “very very small additional positions” such as a social worker at the Senior Center, said Dash.

But for several residents who commented during the public comment portion of the meeting, just the tiniest jump in taxes would be devastating to many.

“Any dollar increase for us right now is too much considering the thousands of dollars in revenue that we’ve all lost and the percentage of business down,” said Deran Muckjian, a lifelong resident and owner of The Toy Shop of Belmont on Leonard Street.

Dawn McCarren said a lot of good ideas have come from the task force “but the town will survive without an override.”

“I realize that there will be cuts but families are at stake and this is extremely difficult pill to swallow, forcing some to sell homes where residents lived for multigenerationd,” she said.

No short-term solution

But the Board contend the town has not other short-term option but to back placing the override on the ballot.

“I recognize that we have a lot of folks in the community that are in economically challenging times as a result of COVID, that are on fixed incomes for which this tax is an incredible burden and it’s hard for us to solve,” said Caputo.

“At the end of the day, this override is indicated by the facts and the realities and as such it needs to be put on the ballot,” Caputo said.

A delay, said Epstein, would made a bad situation even worse, as cuts would be made to services, nearly the entire free cash account would be used in one year which would imperil the town’s “gold standard” AAA bond rating and ultimately require a much more robust override amount in 2023.

Epstein also wanted to dampen down any suggestions that, as one resident said in an email, voters suspect the funds raised through the override would be spent on “grandiose capital projects.” The reality, he said, was the additional funds will be directed to operating expenses such as paying for teacher salaries while continue vital infrastructure projects.

Epstein did acknowledge the fiscal ’22 education expenses accedes what he believes is a minimal level but that is due to the district introducing a new school – the Chenery Middle School at the high school location – in the next two years and to maintain “considerable progress” its has invested in over the past five years.

School costs will continue to lead the way adding more than 32 FTE (Full-time equivalent) positions in the next three years “to address increase in enrollment, grade configuration and what the school committee’s vision for the future,” said Patrice Garvin, town administrator, at last week’s meeting of the Select Board.

Enrollment changes FY ’20 to FY ’24

Yet also noting that an override will have little impact on the town’s structural deficit in which revenues are unable to match expenses due to annual limits on property tax increases while education costs due to students entering the district – a 1,000 new pupils in just the past few years – has far outpaced revenues.

Dash said the town has created two new committee, the Structural Budget Impact Group and Long-term Capital Budget Planning Committee, which will look for opportunities to increase revenues and decrease expenses. Around March, the town will open a portal on the town’s web site where people will be able to put in any structural change suggestions for the boards to review.

“There are no stupid ideas, every idea will be looked at and vetted, put into a matrix and analyzed,” said Dash.

Looking into the horizon, Epstein believes Belmont may finally see by 2026 some stability or even slight decrease in the decade of sky rocking enrollment – greater than 10 percent over the past 10 years – in town schools which will in turn decrease the need to hire teachers, staff and other expenses.

“As soon as there’s stability in the number of schoolchildren instead of this continuous very rapid growth that will give us a lot more flexibility in managing the budget,” he said.

Greater detail on the budget planning for the next three fiscal years can be found in the documents at the Town of Belmont website.

In addition, Belmont Media Center has recorded Financial Task Force meetings.