Photo: Belmont School Committee candidate Jung Yueh
A parent, an actuary, a coach and a national college champion in ballroom dancing, Jung Yueh is running for the first time to be elected on the Belmont School Committee.
Who is Jung Yeah?
My name is Jung Yueh. I came to the United States when I was 13 and went through the public school system in New York City. I went to MIT for an undergrad in mathematics and have a master’s degree in computer science from Northeastern University.
We moved to Belmont on Christmas Day in 2010 for its public schools. In 2010, we visited the Butler School and Principal Mike McAllaster before making an offer to buy a house here.
We have two kids in the Belmont Public Schools. My daughter is currently in 8th grade and going through high school course selections this month. My son is in 5th grade and is going to go from the youngest grade in his school this year at Chenery Middle school to be in 6th grade and the oldest grade in his school next year.
I am a “business math” guy by training: an actuary and Chartered Financial Analyst. I worked as a pension and retiree welfare actuary at AonHewitt and a health actuary at BlueCross BlueShield of Massachusetts and Tufts Health Plan. In our town, we face urgent fiscal and service challenges and need long-term plans that manage risk, value, and wise investment. These are the kinds of problems I work on. So I have dealt with benefits valuations and cash flow projections for pension plans, employee health plans, and retiree benefits. I now work for a local small business in Belmont that provides market research and survey analytics–helping people understand broad opinions and data.
Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?
I want to make a difference in my community. It’s precisely because it is a difficult time that I felt I needed to step up. I am not a politician, and it is not my personality or values to promote myself–I put my work first and pulled nomination papers because I’m determined to work for our kids, schools, and our whole community. I believe the school committee needs my skills, background, and representation. We have some excellent school committee members experienced in education and administration. I can complement their strength with my long-term financial planning and analytical skills. I am also a trained mediator–in addition to understanding surveys, I have spent years listening to diverse and even opposing opinions and getting the most out of everyone on a team.
What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?
The School Committee is chartered to manage four things. Budget, policies, hire and manage district leadership, and union negotiations. I am an actuary and Chartered Financial Analyst experienced in financial analysis and benefit valuations, together with my mediation training is experiences directly relevant to budgeting and negotiation. We need long-term, sound, clear financial plans and transparency.
I have been on different boards, including one where we had to hire a new CEO, not too different from hiring a superintendent or principal. We have a lot of turnover in our school leadership. And in my current work in market research and data analytics and with my training in mediation, I learn to understand different perspectives and seek win-wins and consensus. As we move toward a data-centric world, we will have to dive into available data as we try to hold our school administrators accountable.
Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?
This is a very complex question. So, I would suggest that we think of revenue and spending more comprehensively, and understand that the better we plan ahead, the better everyone will be. If we keep funding the school system at a minimum level, we will get by ok in good years, but will not be resilient enough to handle unexpected system shocks.
I am going to geek out and look at our long-term tax history as an actuary would. I would question the assumptions in these statements.
- Assumption 1: town revenue increases are about 3.5 percent,
- Assumption 2: town revenue should increase at about 3.5 percent,
- Assumption 3: school district asks for more money than it needs.
Based on my review of our tax history in the last 22 years since 2001, our town’s tax base has increased by 5.35 percent per year on average, and the tax levy increase is only 5.09 percent (Even after the Middle and High School debt exclusion). You can find these numbers on the tax assessor’s website. So looking at our history, our tax rate has been steady and slightly decreasing. The 3.5 figure is likely related to increases we would expect if we never pass a proposition 2 ½ override, but includes new growth. New growth is new construction and home renovations.
Proposition override is designed to encourage towns to discuss tax and spending. Like its name, Proposition 2½ sets a maximum level of property tax increases at 2.5 percent. This is, by design, insufficient for a residential community like Belmont. We have experienced dramatic increases in our real estate values, which means, without voter approval, our tax rate goes down. This has an effect of our revenue not keeping up with the town’s needs, solely because people in 1980 in Massachusetts thought it was a good idea to cap revenue below the rate of inflation. And of course, nobody likes taxes, so we start underfunding our services and fall behind on capital maintenance.
The school system asks for a budget based on the state-mandated requirements, agreements we made to the teachers in negotiated salary and benefits, and the number of students we need to support. In our town, our school system has maintained excellence while consistently spending less per pupil than other comparable districts. Maybe we are exceptional, but it’s also likely that there are hidden costs that our parents and students bear. For example, we had deferred enough costs in building a strong enough special education program that when we had a system shock like COVID, our educators couldn’t handle the additional needs, and had to send students out of the district, which ended up costing us more.
Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?
Our schools are the heart of our community, and why people want to move to Belmont. I will be a vocal proponent of passing an override in 2024. A big part of the conversation with voters will be related to how the town views the school spending. I feel it is important to explain clearly where the money is going, and why it is needed to keep our academic excellence–and as an actuary, I am well trained to help us plan, budget, and communicate longer-term.
Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?
I support maintaining and improving the academic excellence in our schools, which means all students’ needs are supported and students have opportunities to be challenged and grow in subjects that excite them.
We must maintain mandated services–and the core of the budget does that. If you support advanced coursework, investing in building out our Special Education services, music, art, lots of rewarding instruction hours, staff for recess and flexible scheduling, caring for the safety, the emotional, and social well-being of our children – all of these things need an override. The school budget detail is very complicated and at the end of the day, it is the school department and school committee’s job to adjust the spending plans during the year as needs and challenges come up. We design the budget in the spring, but often don’t know the full details of the school year until the following January or February. We need flexibility for our experts and educators to maneuver and take care of all children.
Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?
While it might cost more at the beginning, by properly providing a support system and training, we can support our children in the district better. It will also reduce overall costs. It takes a long-term approach in order to reduce our expenses. We must fund and staff this work now because we finally have the space. It will be an important multi-year effort and investment.
Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?
As a trained mediator, I want to be directly involved in the union negotiation. Getting the conversation started and making sure the contract negotiation is completed on time in the next cycle will be good for everyone.
As I mentioned before, I am a first-generation American. I went through a robust ELL program in New York City where I had two years of in-school ESL classes, plus summer classes designed for new immigrants. I was able to take honor-level high school classes, and college-level math and literature classes at Queens College while still in high school. So making sure that we have a robust ELL program and making sure that our high school coursework continues to be appropriately challenging will be important to me. Early support and investment is the best for our kids.
What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?
Currently, Chenery is too big to support our young middle schooler’s needs. A little more tender-loving care will be helpful. As it splits into BMS and CUE, I look forward to each school providing more age-appropriate mental health and emotional health support. We spend a lot of time accommodating logistics in Chenery–and I want to put the focus back on the kids and education instead of the building, the schedule, and its challenges.
At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?
I want to see less turnover in the administration, a positive relationship with the Belmont Education Association, and a successful override vote. If I was asked to run for re-election, I will know that I worked especially hard for our community, put the kids, educators, and community first, and did all we could to support this generation in recovery from the pandemic.