Crowley Amendment Splits School Committee, Comes Before Town Meeting Monday; Protest Rally Supporting Amendment Anticipated

Photo: Belmont Town Meeting will take up an amendment to transfer free cash to the school department for SPED programs

In one of the most contentious votes in recent Town Meeting history, an amendment to transfer a little over a quarter million dollars from free cash to the school department will come before the town’s legislative body as the meeting debates the fiscal year ’24 operating budget on Monday, June 5.

Sponsored by former School Committee member Michael Crowley with the backing of several prominent Town Meeting members, the amendment has already shaken up the School Committee as half the members voted on Friday, June 2, their support of the measure when it comes before Town Meeting.

A protest rally outside Belmont High School is anticipated by some of the members backing the transfer, with leaflets expected to be distributed.

The amendment seeks to transfer $289,000 from the town’s “free cash” account to support much-needed funding for the special education program and personnel.

According to Crowley, the amendment will provide $189,000 to hire two FTEs in the SPED program and set aside $100,000 to design and develop a plan to return Belmont students currently being taught “out-of-district” back to district schools resulting in significant savings.

“Out-of-district tuition is a top cost driver for the district, and investing now can reduce future expenses,” said Crowley describing the amendment’s aims.

Members backing the amendment include Karen Bauerle, Heather Barr, Marty Bitner, Julie Crockett, Michael Gao, Kim Haley-Jackson, Paul Joy, Amy Kirsch, and Paul Roberts.

Members and town officials opposing the measure contend the amendment – being presented within the last week – is a last-minute financial interloper that, while admittingly not a budget buster, was not evaluated by the Warrant Committee, Town Meeting’s financial “watchdog.”

The action comes as the town is marshaling funds into free cash as an essential bulwark as the town prepares to present to voters a nearly $10 million Prop 2 1/2 override at the annual Town Election in April 2024. Town officials have stated in budget meetings that building up unreserved funds balance will allow the town to keep the override “ask” under $10 million – an amount many feels is more palatable for voters to accept – and will be a lifeline to town and schools if the override fails.

At a recent Select Board meeting, the board indicated the three members will speak out against the measure as will the Warrant Committee contending the amendments and its backers have subverted the budget process. In addition, a significant number of Town Meeting Members are expected to voice their concern the amendment is sowing division between Town Meeting members – the ultimate judge of the budget – and town and school officials and committees, which spent nearly ten months shepherding the budget to a vote.

That division could be seen taking place in the School Committee 3-3 vote where members Jamal Saeh, Jeffrey Liberty, and Jung Yueh voted “favorable action” to the amendment with Chair Meghan Moriarty, Amy Checkoway, and Amy Zuccarello in opposition. In the debate, the newly-elected Yueh said that Town Meeting is part of the budget process, as are budget amendments.

Crowley, when he was a member of the school committee until April, advocated using free cash to support the schools. He believes that an override will not pass or fail by Town Meetings’ acceptance of the transfer.