Editorial: Vote Yes On 4; An Investment In Our Shared Future

Photo: An outward expression of our investment in the future of our community, our children and the nation.

A no vote on Question 4 Tuesday to approve a $213 million debt authorization for a new 7th-12th-grade school building is not a rejection of a tax increase but an admission Belmont’s collective futures are not worth the investment.

The numbers and facts concerning the design, cost, and history of the proposed high school (here and here) has been public for several months. Town Meeting spent $1.75 million in a feasibility study that breaks down the project to the cost of the final nut and bolt. The changes in taxes have been calculated by the town treasurer. The school district has forecast a continued increase in students enrolling in the six public schools that requires a large building project. Those are the facts. 

But Tuesday’s vote is more than a series of self-interested personal decisions; it is an opportunity to show how this community views the most important function for all municipal government, educating its children.

Marking the ballot “no” on Tuesday may feel penny wise but it is indeed pound foolish to the extreme. A negative response is not simply a rejection of the future, its a clarion call for the slow decay of the outstanding education system it took nearly five decades to create. 

My standard response to people who ask why people live here is “You don’t move to Belmont for the roads. You come for the schools.” What prospective homeowner would knowingly bring their children into a community that won’t make a commitment to education? Home values will likely begin lag behind surrounding cities and towns which have decided to make education a priority. 

Rejecting a decade of work by committed volunteers and professionals will require Town Meeting to vote over a decade on three ever increasing large debt exclusion measures to house the skyrocketing number of students entering the district for the next decade and extending the life of a fifty-year-old school building that has no business being renovated. How likely will a future Town Meeting be willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on putting lipstick on a pig?

If any of the three debt questions – totaling $50 million more than the debt exclusion being considered Tuesday – is rejected, the outcome would be jammed packed classrooms that will swiftly bring the school district’s accreditation into question. It’s truly an unimaginable conclusion to   

Tuesday’s vote is also an opportunity for Belmont to recommit itself to the great American uniter of public education which has increasingly come under attack by reactionary forces who believe “government schools” – a new pejorative created by the right – are wasteful, run by overpaid bureaucrats who spew progressive messages rather than “real” learning. They call for education to be run as a publicly funded business with vouchers, charter and private schools replacing our shared heritage.

But for communities that take pride in and nurture public schools, the benefits are boundless. Belmont ranks in the top percentile of public schools in a state which leads the country in the quality of schools. While the nation as a whole meanders with lackluster rankings in the core curriculum, Belmont students are on par with the top-ranked education provided in the schools of Europe and Asia. The education our students receive from first-rate teachers and educators provides a world of future options that children from too many communities lack.

And one important component to keeping the stellar standard the Belmont schools have created is for its residents to commit the financial resources in teaching, activities and, yes, modern facilities. There are no other options.

Public education binds us as Americans, it is in our common ethos that an enlightened young is the best path to preserving our country for generations to come.

The time is not to look inward with provincial expectations, but to approve a building project that will become an outward expression of our investment in the future of our community, our children and the nation.

Vote Yes on 4.

Editorial: Cast Aside Politics and Fear, Vote Yes for the Override

Photo: The Yes campaigners. 

The Belmontonian endorses a “yes” vote on Question 1, the Proposition 2 1/2 override measure on the ballot to be decided on Tuesday, April 7. 

This question allows residents the opportunity to follow “the better angels of our nature,” when we can set aside manufactured tension and fear and replace it with good, positive, constructive acts.

The proposed override was born after a year-long gestation by the Financial Task Force of sober, careful analysis and facts of the financial constraints facing the community. The task force – including Selectman Mark Paolillo, Town Treasurer Floyd Carman, Town Administrator David Kale, School Committee Chair Laurie Slap, Capital Budget Chair Anne Marie Mahoney and Charles Laverty III of the Board of Assessors, all respected for their dedication and work for Belmont – held dozens of open and public meetings and forums, requested information and data and worked cooperatively with all.

The task force’s final report recommended the Belmont Board of Selectmen call for a $4.5 million multi-year override to both stems the rapidly growing funding deficit due to skyrocketing enrollment and rapidly increasing expenses in our schools. In a vote called a “brave decision,” the Selectmen unanimously approved the recommendation in February.

But just as vital as supplying funding, the override secures up to three, but likely many more years of stability for Belmont schools. While not ideal or even desired, assured level-funding will provide educators over the long-term, Town Meeting and our state legislators the time to commit to fundamental improvements and other necessary changes to retain the outstanding reputation of the schools, our community’s greatest resource.

The override will exact a burden onto Belmont property owners, about $650 on the medium valued house assessed at $847,000. No one should say it’s “only” $162 on the quarterly bill; that is a hardship to some.

But it is time Belmont residents face the fact the community has been attempting to run a modern, urban municipality on the cheap. Belmont has one of the lowest average tax bills in the state and an extremely low cost-per-pupil expenditures (coupled with one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios). It’s little wonder the town is a laughing stock for it’s disgraceful roads, but that happens when you won’t pay an adequate amount for their upkeep. The band Midnight Oil spoke to what Belmont needs to realize: “The time has come/To say fair’s fair/to pay the rent/to pay our share.”

There are worthy opponents to the override. Former Selectman Anne Marie Mahoney, a task force member, is opposing the ballot question as she takes the lonely role of sponsoring the large ticket capital projects – a new High School, police station, Department of Public Works complex to name a few. Her cause requires Town officials and Town Meeting to be acknowledged and brought fully into the fold of long-term planning.

The same can not be said for the “Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee,” a tiny renegade group from the Warrant Committee, made up of members past and present, supporting its campaign with little more than empty phrases and promises.

The No committee claims its complaint with the override supporters is fiscal, the Financial Task Force’s careful analysis on revenue assumptions by well-respected town members is wrong, the recommendation producing a “mega” override. All that is needed is to fill the announced $1.7 million deficit the schools will encounter in the next fiscal year.

The Nos has no completing reports to back its claim the money is out there; they counter with “trust us.”

What should take every resident aback is the solution being proposed from the Nos if the override is defeated; this group of non-elected residents will come before the elected Board of Selectmen with their “list” of residents and town members they hope to see on an unelected “budget committee” which will solve the fiscal issues facing the town, all within “three to six” weeks.

The questions that arise with this “solution” are numerous and unnerving:

  • Will the “budget committee” be open to all or closed to a few?
  • Who will lead it?
  • Will it have any authority?
  • Shouldn’t it be approved by Town Meeting before it starts?
  • Will the committee be subject to the open meeting laws?
  • What if the solution from the “budget committee” differs from the renegade Warrant Committee members?

The No committee is making it up as it goes. Its solution is not based on democracy, but power.

And, to misquote Hamlet, therein lies the rub: The No Committee’s mission is political, not financial. The amount could have been $4 million, $3 million or $2 million, the Nos would have pegged the override with the puerile label “mega.”

But the prime target for the Nos is the schools and the “hardcore” union representing Belmont teachers. It wouldn’t surprise anyone that the Nos have circulated lists of teachers pay prompting one supporter wondering at candidates’ night paying a kindergarten teacher $90,000. Several times, one member of the group have suggested that the union must be made to heal to lead the town into a financial nirvana. In addition, by providing annual funding rather than a long-term approach, the school district will be beholden to the “budget committee.”

If the Nos had declared its agenda up front, they would be seen as honest brokers, rather than a very small fraternity of political operatives.

With only seven contributors and a campaign paid by a single source, the Nos remain a powerful opponent, playing to a substantial number of residents who view Belmont as the same small town of several generations past, those who believe providing a “good enough” education – in a world that punishes those who are only “good enough” – is what is required, while nervously viewing their own finances as economic forces beyond everyone’s reach ever change.

We, Belmont, must reject the fear and mistrust being pushed by the No committee.

We, Belmont, must be for something, rather than be opposed to stability and taking responsibility for the true cost of running the town.

We, Belmont, must grab the opportunity to move forward with facts and realism rather than be led back with half truths and the empty “trust us.”

Vote for the override.