To the Globe: Paolillo Responds to Columnist Minuteman Op-Ed


[Editor’s note: The article below is a letter to the editor in the Boston Sunday Globe, Sept. 18]

DANTE RAMOS missed the point of Belmont’s opposition to the Minuteman High School referendum (“Oh, Belmont! Local control fetish hurts vocational schools,” Opinion, Sept. 11).

The Minuteman district is broken. A substantial percentage of the approximately 600 students come from nonmember towns.

The funding mechanism severely disadvantages member towns. Belmont has tried for years to fix the problem, as recently as this summer. But nonmember towns are not joining.

In 2017, Belmont will pay $30,602 per student, as compared with $19,702 by nonmember towns, and it will only get worse with the new, $144 million Minuteman debt. This is an unfair financial burden on member towns.

Ramos praises Dover for its willingness to overlook the unfairness. But let’s put that in context. Belmont spent $13,029 in 2015 per pupil in our public schools, as compared with $24,263 in Dover. Additionally, Dover sent only two students to Minuteman; Belmont sends an average of 30. The disadvantage of Minuteman membership does not significantly affect Dover; that is not true of Belmont.

Belmont has legitimate concerns. Without fixing the unfairness of the district, we should not approve an oversized school that will make it worse.

Mark Paolillo

Chairman, Board of Selectmen


Letter to the Editor: Despite State’s Move on Capital Costs, ‘No’ Remains Best Course

Photo: Michael Libenson

To the editor:

Last Monday [Sept. 12] I served as a panelist for the League of Women Voters information session on the Minuteman referendum. I explained why there is a clear and compelling financial case for a “no” vote on the Minuteman referendum.

A broad group of Belmont town leaders agree. The Board of Selectmen and School Committee have voted unanimously to recommend a “no” vote, as has our State Sen. Will Brownsberger. The Warrant Committee voted 13-1 to recommend a “no” vote.

Some have asked me whether the subsequent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ruling that allows Minuteman the option to charge non-member towns between 75 percent and 100 percent of the member town capital cost alters my perspective. It does not.

Belmont residents should vote “no” on Tuesday. It remains true that Belmont should save over $200,000 each year, and perhaps more, as a non-member town and yet still generate the same educational outcomes for our children.

The Minuteman district is broken and the recent DESE ruling doesn’t change that. The district is broken because nearly half the students come from non-member towns – including Watertown, Waltham, and Cambridge – and non-member towns are treated differently in the form of lower costs, most importantly with tuition, and secondarily with capital. 

The primary cost difference is due to non-member towns paying substantially less in tuition than member towns like Belmont. Belmont’s tuition cost this year will be $30,602 per student and Watertown will pay $19,702 per student on average. This large difference does not change and there is no clear path to change.

With 26 students at Minuteman, Belmont currently paying approximately $280,000 more than we would if Belmont were a non-member town like Watertown. This tuition disparity is the main reason no non-member town has joined the district in more than 30 years.

Tuition cost is also an important factor in why six of the sixteen towns have recently voted to leave the district.

Second, despite DESE’s recent ruling, capital costs remain unknown. The one thing we do know is that non-member towns will never pay more than member towns.

Minuteman now has to decide how much to charge non-member towns for capital. Imposing the full capital charge of $8,460 will likely cause non-member towns to explore sending some or all of their students to other schools that are substantially cheaper (as Minuteman is already the most expensive voc/ed school in the Commonwealth, even without any capital charge). Minuteman needs these non-district students to fill the school.

If a number of non-member students go elsewhere – or those towns even threaten to go elsewhere – Minuteman will have to choose between an underutilized school (and therefore even higher operating and capital costs borne by the remaining members) or a lower capital fee for non-members. For member towns, this means risk without reward and Belmont need not bear this risk.

Here is the bottom line: the reason why the current decision is so consequential is that a “yes” vote will lock Belmont into a bad deal for 30 or more years. We have an opportunity on Tuesday [Sept. 20] to avoid locking ourselves into a broken system for generations.

The financial case remains clear and compelling that Belmont should vote “no”.

Michael Libenson
Town Meeting Member, Precinct 1
Chair, Belmont Warrant Committee

Letter to the Editor: State Action Results in My Vote Changing From No to Yes

Photo: The site

To the editor:

A new Minuteman High School is essential for Belmont. We should vote YES in the Sept. 20 election.

I changed my mind on this vote because Belmont won a major victory this week. DESE, the state agency that oversees all public schools, finally did the right thing this past Thursday [Sept. 15] and set a capital charge that is fair for the member towns. This answers nearly all of the criticisms of the building project. With the capital charge resolved, it is time for Belmont to approve the debt for a new school and remain a member town.

The opponents of the debt argued through the spring and summer that the proposed new school is too large for the member towns and DESE could not be trusted to set a fair capital charge. This argument is no longer valid.

Belmont will pay the same capital charge even if we became a non-member town.  That is the outcome we demanded, an equal per-student amount for the cost of the new building.  DESE has accepted this principle with a small adjustment for non-member towns that already provide a significant level of vocational/tech programs.

In recent weeks the opponents of the debt have changed their focus. They now seem to be making the vote a referendum on the tuition charged to non-member towns for operating expenses. By leaving the district, they say Belmont will save money even with the fair capital charge because the non-member towns pay lower tuition.

The new regional agreement as discussed in Town Meeting allows a district to withdraw, subject to unanimous approval by the remaining members, to avoid the debt obligation.  Tuition was not the reason for this provision.

Non-member towns are a part of Minuteman.  This not ideal but it reflects circumstances unique to this district.  The practical difficulties in getting new towns to join as members may be solvable in the future.

If Belmont pays less in tuition, the remaining member towns have to pay more.  It is a zero sum game at that point and I do not support shifting costs to our neighbors in this way.  The amount at stake is something we can afford.  In a perfect world of equalized tuition, Belmont might save $150,000 when our total town budget is over $100 million.

In addition, leaving the district is not automatic even if Town Meeting votes to withdraw.  The remaining member towns also have to vote unanimous approval for Belmont’s exit.  Reduced to a naked economic calculation, they have an incentive to deny a request to leave.

A member of Arlington’s Finance Committee has already signaled that Belmont can expect opposition to an exit request. Withdrawal is probably not the windfall that some have intimated.

There should be a thorough debate over tuition for non-member towns but it should not be used to avoid approving the debt.  If Belmont withdraws, our economic incentive will be to free-ride on a flawed tuition policy.  Instead, the right course is to remain in the district and help lead that debate.  That debate should also include how to make sure Minuteman is run efficiently and controls its operating costs.

Belmont won the big battle over the capital charge.  I urge you to vote yes on Sept. 20.

Roy Epstein

Cushing Ave.

Letter to the Editor: Putting the Minuteman Vote in Context

Photo: Norman Rockwell “The Watchmaker”

To the editor:

My father was a watchmaker; my son graduated from culinary school; my father-in-law was a tool and die maker. I respect the education and training provided by vocational-technical schools. I also understand the hopes of those who want to make the Minuteman School District work.

After almost three decades of working with Minuteman (on the Warrant Committee, School Committee, and Board of Selectmen), I think that efforts to reform Minuteman are unrealistic. Senator Brownsberger’s thoughtful analysis is persuasive. The Minuteman District is a broken system, and the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is not going to fix it.

If we vote “yes” on the Minuteman debt on September 20, we are committing ourselves to paying at least $10 million and probably closer to $14 million over the next 30 years. That decision, once made, is irrevocable.

We can save between $200,000 and $400,000 each year by becoming a non-member town, and still get a great Minuteman education for our students filling the approximately 300 non-member seats. Those savings can be spent on teachers for our growing school population; miles of paved sidewalks; debt service on a long list of capital projects.

Everyone who has devoted years of service trying to reform the Minuteman District agrees that we should vote “no” on September 20. The School Committee recommends “no” by a vote of 6-0. The Selectmen recommend “no” by a vote of 3-0. The Warrant Committee recommends “no” by a vote of 13-1.

Voting “no” on the Minuteman Debt is a better plan for Belmont.

Ralph T. Jones

Summit Road

Jones is a former Chair of the Board of Selectmen and former member of the School Committee and Warrant Committee.

Letter to the Editor: Forcing DESE’s Hand By Voting No on Minuteman Plan


To the editor:

A new Minuteman High School is essential for Belmont. That’s why I am voting no in the Sept. 20 election.

A majority NO vote in town is a requirement for Belmont to have the option to withdraw from the Minuteman District. We need this option.

As a member of Town Meeting and the Warrant Committee, I have been studying this issue for months. The biggest problem right now is the failure of DESE, the state agency that oversees all school districts, to make public the “capital charge” it will approve for the Minuteman project.  The capital charge is the amount per student Minuteman will be allowed to charge non-member towns to help pay for the debt to build the new school.  About half of the Minuteman enrollment in the future will come from non-member towns, so this issue is critical.

The conclusion of all reasonable analyses is that a fair capital charge is approximately $8,400 per student.  But there are well-founded fears that DESE will only approve a much lower amount, perhaps around $2,000.  This would place an unfair burden on member towns to subsidize non-members when all benefit equally from the new building.  

Voting NO accomplishes two goals. It tells DESE that it is time to decide on the capital charge. They have been analyzing this issue since the spring and there no reason to prolong this process. Second, by voting no Belmont will have the option through Town Meeting to request leaving the Minuteman district. A special Town Meeting would be held in mid-October for this purpose.

Assuming a majority no vote, my recommendation for Town Meeting will depend on DESE. If they do not make a decision by then or set an unfairly low capital charge, I would support leaving the district.  But if DESE does the right thing and sets a fair capital charge in the neighborhood of $8,400, I would strongly urge Town Meeting to remain in the district.

There are other financial and strategic considerations about Minuteman that have been discussed in town. The Warrant Committee will continue to discuss them and be prepared, if necessary, to explain them to Town Meeting in October.  

But the first step is the election on Sept. 20. The wise course is to turn out and vote no. Then for October we should wait and see how DESE acts.

Roy Epstein

Cushing Avenue

Letter to the Editor: Let’s Stand by Our Word – Vote “Yes” on Minuteman

Photo: The new Minuteman Tech High School

To the editor:

In the spring Belmont town meeting voted overwhelmingly to adopt the new Minuteman Regional Agreement and remain in the district. Now that it comes to paying our fair share for a new school building, the same people want to “chicken out” and reverse course to withdraw from the district. They call it “rent” instead of “buy,” which is a bit cheaper in the short term, but also means a lot less control and future access for our students.

Sure, we might save some money by leaving the district. Michael Libenson calculated that amount as anywhere between $200,000-$400,000 per year. This is money that would need to be picked up by the towns remainng in the district (most people would call this free-loading). But in my opinion, Michael’s savings calculation is flawed. It assumes that out-of-district towns will continue to pay lower operating fees and lower or no capital charges for a new building. The Massachusetts Department for Education (DESE) has already committed to charging out-of-district towns the capital fee (exactly how much is still open). In addition to lower operating fees non-member towns have to pay about $4,500 for each student on an IEP (roughly 50 percent of students at Minuteman) and about $1,000 per student for transportation.

Figuring these additional costs into the calculation makes the difference between in-district and out-of-district students shrink to a much smaller number than is widely presented. Common sense implies that over time the differences in fees will disappear or be based on some formula of what each town can afford. By staying in the district, we can work with the state and school towards this goal.

The Selectman and Warrant Committee also claim that we need a debt exclusion vote to be able to afford the extra costs for the new Minuteman school. I have a hard time believing this. Our annual school budget is about $50 million. The additional $200,000-$400,000 expenses that Libenson calculated to stay in the district and pay for the new school would represent less than 1 percent of our school budget. This is a relatively small number, and I believe we could pay this out of the operating budget until we have to do a debt override for a new high school or police station.

The downside of voting No and withdrawing from the district is big: we give up the guaranteed access for our children to a quality vocational education close to town, we give up oversight and control over Minuteman’s management and future direction, and we freeload on our neighboring towns. If this discussion was about Belmont High School, I believe no one would be voting against it to save a few dollars, but it is apparently different for a vocational school.

Martin Plass

Stanley Road, TMM Precinct 3

Letter to the Editor: Vote ‘No’ to Preserve the Override Funds

Photo: Supporter of the schools override.

To the editor:

How do we want to spend the 2015 override funds?

Next Tuesday, Belmont voters will decide whether to spend $335,000 to $500,000 per year (or more) to fund the $144 million new Minuteman debt.

I am a school advocate. I strongly support vocational education.

But this referendum is not a vote about education. If Belmont votes No, we can continue to give our students the same Minuteman education, for less money.

This is a vote about debt.

The debt could be funded through a 30-year tax increase, but I believe that it will not pass. Any tax increase is always a hard sell.

Without a tax increase, we would have to use override funds.

Override funds are currently being used to support our operating budget, as promised. But if we take on the Minuteman debt, without new taxes, it will hit our operating budget and prematurely drain the override funds.

If we vote “No” now, and only now, we have a chance to avoid the debt. Belmont is currently a member of the Minuteman district. If we vote “No”, Belmont Town Meeting will have the opportunity to vote to become a non-member.

Member towns pay much more than non-member towns. In 2017, Belmont will pay $30,602 per student, compared to $19,702 by non-member towns, and it will only get worse when you add debt payments for the new $144 million Minuteman.

Michael Libenson, chair of the Warrant Committee, presented his analysis on Monday night that shows Belmont will likely save $200,000 to $400,000 in tuition and capital charges by sending our students to Minuteman as a non-member. (The presentation is available at

In other words, it will cost Belmont an additional $200,000 to $400,000 every year to remain a member. To pay that annual membership premium, we would likely have to tap our override funds.

What Belmont decides should not impact the new school. Most of the remaining nine towns have already lined up their funding. They will vote for it. The referendum is expected to pass. The school will then be built.

Belmont is left with few options. We tried to fix broken district, but the non-member towns won’t join. We tried to right-size the new school, but we were rebuffed.

Now, we need to get out. If Belmont signs on to the $144 million debt, it will squeeze our budget for the next 30 years.

An analogy I think is helpful: Why would we want to “own a new building” (and 30 years of debt payments), when we could “rent ~30 seats” at Minuteman for less money? Why would we choose to pay more, when we could pay less for the same services?

We worked hard to pass the 2015 override. Let’s not use it up more quickly than we have to.

Please join me in voting “No” next Tuesday.

Ellen Schreiber, Sandrick Road

Ellen Schreiber is a member of the Warrant Committee and Town Meeting Member.

Forum Presents the Yes and No of Minuteman Financing Vote

Photo: Martin Plass (left) after the forum on the Minuteman finance vote. 

Martin Plass was raised in Aachen, Germany, a country where technical schools – the Berufsschule – are held in the same esteem as the other secondary education placements in the country.

“[In Germany], vocational training is seen as a great career path where you are taken into an apprenticeship, and it’s respected,” said the Stanley Road resident.

But the Precinct 3 Town Meeting Member believes that in many communities teaching practical skills so students can enter manufacturing, business or technical jobs “is looked down on.”

That feeling, Plass said after a community forum held Monday, Sept. 12 at the Beech Street Center on funding a new $145 million Minuteman Technical High School, is held by many residents in Belmont.

“People here will say, ‘I want the best possible school for Belmont High’ because they have children there. But they seem to say we can’t have that for our children who want a more practical work experience. That’s a shame,” said Plass.

For Plass and many who attending the forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the town’s Warrant Committee, the prospects of town voters casting a no vote on Wednesday, Sept. 20 during an election being held in the 16 communities who send students to Minuteman is short-sighted when considering the alternative. 

But for those residents who are pushing for voters to reject the proposed $100 million in debt – the state’s School Building Authority will pick up $45 million – the 10 remaining municipalities (six communities have voted to leave the district but will still vote on the plan) will finance over 30 years, the fiscal burden taxpayers and the town’s budget are being asked to carry can not be justified under the current agreement and assumptions made by the Minuteman administration.

“The bottom line is that Belmont taxpayers should save over $200,000 … or perhaps $400,000 per year by being a nonmember town with the same educational outcomes we all care about,” said Michael Libenson, the chair of the Warrant Committee which last week voted 13-1 against the new school financing plan.  

What the Sept. 20 election is not about, reiterated Libenson, is a referendum on vocational or technical education “which virtually everyone I know in town feels very strongly about.” Nor would it halt the building of the new school while protecting the placement of Belmont students at the Lexington-based school for at least seven years.

The forum was the last opportunity publically for both sides to express what in many cases are long-standing reasons for their support or opposition. 

On the no side, it comes down to the facts on the ground. Libenson, who presented for the no side in opening remarks, said the main issue is that the school, which is being built for 628 students, today enrolls 331 students or about 50 percent of the total pupil population from the ten member districts. The other students, coming from Watertown, Waltham and Medford to name a few towns, pay a tuition to attend the school.

“It’s a fundamental problem because it means the non-member towns are paying meaningfully less to send students to the school,” said Libenson. On average, Belmont spends $30,600 per student to attend the school while Watertown, which sends 63 students, pays $19,700 in tuition per student a year or $10,900 less on a per student basis. 

One of the assumptions of the “yes” voters is the new Minuteman can attract more in district students to the school to fill the 635 seats. But Libenson said this claim would require a 40 percent increase in enrollment, something that is counter to the steady decline of students entering the school over the past 20 years.

img_6972 img_6960

Belmont had been working with the other member districts to solve this issue, but the 15 communities wanted to build the new school first before tackling the problem of equity spending by non-members.

While the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can add a surcharge onto the tuition of non-member students to help pay for the $100 million in capital expenses facing the member towns, it’s unknown how much, if any, DESE will authorize as it has not made a decision on the matter.

The case for voting no is a compelling one, said Libenson, coming down to a simple equation: it’s better to rent than buy. 

“It’s much more sensible for Belmont to rent seats at Minuteman or other vocational schools than to buy into this 30-year debt authorization,” he said, advising town officials to call for a Special Town Meeting in October where it will ask to leave the district. 

The ultimate goal of the no side – a Brexit-like move from Minuteman – would be “dangerous for Belmont students and the reputation of the town,” warned John Herzog, a retired professor who spoke for the yes side.

A parent and grandparent of students in the Belmont schools, Herzog said the no side does not have a better plan for Belmont vocational students “but only complaints.”

“If we are to take this giant step of leaving we should hear what they have in mind,” said Herzog. With an outstanding reputation that sends up to 68 percent of students to college and higher education, “why do you want to get out of [Minuteman]?” especially if any backup plan does not guarantee places for future Belmont students at existing technical schools.

In the long run, Belmont is being asked to finance about $335,000 per year over 30 years, which is an increase of $70 per year on the average tax bill, “which is a slight amount to pay for an excellent school,” said Herzog.

The question and answer portion of the night revolved around the mathematics of whether to stay and leave the district with those in the no column returning to the significant savings the town will accrue by leaving while the yes side, voiced by Laura Vanderhart of Precinct 4 and Agassiz Avenue, who pondered, “what are we giving up?” 

“I think [Minuteman is] going to be more popular,” she said, pointing to efforts by the federal government and promises from politicians from Democratic Vice President candidate Tim Kaine and Belmont’s US  Rep. Katherine Clark to support vocational and technical training. 

Leaving the district would also place a burden on Belmont and other non-district students, according to Minuteman school officials who attended the meeting. Belmont residents would lose their preference taking specific courses of study or even no be accepted to the school as Minuteman reaches capacity.

But the no supporters believe the assumptions presented by those favoring remaining in the Minuteman district – from increased enrollment and enticing towns to join the district to the amount of a capital surcharge placed on out-of-district tuition – is a financial risk the town should not commit itself.

“I’m not prepared today to enlist us to continue that subsidizing the non-member communities unless they are prepared to pay their fair share of the capital expenses,” said Selectmen Chair Mark Paolillo, who joined his fellow member to recommend a “no” vote on Sept. 20.  

For Plass, the writing is on the wall, as he is predicting Belmont will both vote “no” on Sept. 20 and a 2/3 vote to leave the district will pass at a Special Town Meeting in October. 

“I think it’s naive of town officials to think they can do vocational training cheaper when there is a new building at Minuteman with wonderful classes,” he said.

“That will be a sad day for Belmont.”


Letter to the Editor: Support Minuteman on Sept. 20

Photo: Image of the interior of a proposed Minuteman school building.

To the editor:

I’m asking Belmont residents to join me in voting “yes” to support the financing of a new Minuteman school building on Sept. 20.

Some of our local leaders have raised issues about Minuteman. Some say that we can avoid financing the new school and continue to send our kids there. But we won’t be sending our kids to Minuteman if the vote on financing fails. Others say that we can send our kids to other vocational schools. But no specifics have been offered, and there is no plan, just wishful thinking. Some say that Minuteman represents a broken model because many attendees go to college. We want our kids to go to college if they can and to get good jobs if they can’t and this is the role of modern vocational education.

Why does Belmont need to help finance a new school? Minuteman’s current campus was constructed in the 1970’s and needs replacement or costly repairs. Masonry is cracking and buckling. The roof needs to be replaced. The building is not up to ADA compliance standards and is not suited for modern instructional approaches. In fact, the building is at risk of being condemned. If the building is not replaced, repairs are estimated to cost almost as much as the construction of a new building, but would fail to solve many of its problems.

Replacing Minuteman’s school building to meet current enrollment will cost $144 million, of which the state has pledged $44 million. Ten Minuteman district towns, including Belmont, will share the remainder. The state also is imposing a capital fee to ensure that any non-member towns sending kids to Minuteman will pay a fair share. Belmont’s cost is estimated to be $335,000, something that our town can easily afford. One member of our Warrant Committee has suggested that the annual cost to the average Belmont household would be equivalent to ordering a few take-out pizzas.

Some claim that the financing approach carries risk. For example, the other nine Minuteman district towns could all file for bankruptcy, leaving Belmont on the hook for the entire cost. This is as likely as space aliens zapping nine communities out of existence. More realistically, Belmont could face a slightly higher financing cost, perhaps as much as $500,000 a year, if the state does not set the capital fee for non-member towns high enough. We need to lobby the state to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Some argue that the new school will be too big and that it should be radically downsized to exclude non-member towns’ students. There’s just no good argument for this, and the state of Massachusetts will not contribute to a construction plan that does not build to current enrollment.

We need Minuteman to succeed. It’s a critical educational resource. We have to do something for our kids who are not going to college to help them succeed. In fact, the state mandates that we provide vocational education for those wanting it.  But Belmont High School just isn’t equipped to provide vocational training, and we cannot afford to provide these kinds of programs on our own.  Some kids need more and different kinds of attention and instructional approaches to doing well. Minuteman has a student to teacher ratio about half that of Belmont High School. Belmont High School just isn’t equipped to give that kind of attention to kids who need it.

Won’t you show your support for Minuteman on Sept. 20? Please join me in voting “yes.” Polls open at noon.

Michael F. Crowley

Belmont Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8

League of Women Voters/Warrant Committee Holding Minuteman Forum Monday Night

Photo: Michael Libenson

The public is invited to attend a Forum on the Minuteman Regional Career and Technical High School Election Warrant, this evening, Monday, Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

The forum will be moderated by Michael Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator

The panelists will be:

  • ‘Yes’  John Herzog
  • ‘No’  Michael Libenson

Members of the Warrant Committee, the Board of Selectmen, and Belmont School Committee; and the Town Administrator, the Town Treasurer, the Town Clerk, Superintendent of Belmont Schools, Minuteman Superintendent, and Belmont Representative to the Minuteman School Committee, Jack Weiss, have been invited to answer questions.

The evening is co-sponsored by the Belmont Warrant Committee and the Belmont LWV Education Fund.