Schools Budget Deficit Fix: Teacher Layoffs, Increased Class Sizes, Lost Ground

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School will lose a third-grade teacher with the acceptance of the available revenue budget in fiscal year 2016.

When asked her reaction to the presentation by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan on the details of cuts facing the district, Jamie Shea at first just shook her head.

For Shea and others who attended the Belmont School Committee meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 24, the impact on education in bridging the anticipated $1.7 million facing the district in the coming fiscal year was akin to listening to an eulogy for the reputation of a proud district.

“It’s extremely sobering to hear the potential cuts we all are facing,” said Shea, who is the current president of the Foundation for Belmont Education, the group that supports excellence and enrichment in Belmont’s six schools.

“It would be transformative to the district. It will impact every single student in the district. Every single one,” she said.

Phelan said the district – which he has been in charge since July – will not be the same to the one which many families moved to Belmont to attend.

“The Belmont Public Schools will struggle deeply to meet the expectations of their students and families that they so rightly deserve. If there were a headline from this presentation, it would be ‘Available Budget Impact Students Experiences Negatively,” Phelan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

The cuts are necessary due to a historic surge in enrollment, higher expenditures for special education and unfunded state mandates.

During Tuesday meeting, Phelan walked the committee and residents through the components in each school group – elementary, middle school and high school – where savings will be made.

The cuts, which were compiled by the Leadership Council – made up of school principals, senior staff and curriculum directors – are significant and deep by most measures.

(The presentation can be found on the school district’s website.)

Most of the retrenchment, $1.3 million, will come in personnel with the elimination of 22 full-time equivalent professional positions, with the remaining amount coming in less support for instructional material, personal development and facilities and increase fees for student actives and full-day kindergarten.
The cuts include:

  • In the elementary schools, the elimination of more than seven aides, the Butler, Burbank and Wellington will lose guidance counselors, a reduction in music education and physical education and the firing of a third grade teacher at the Wellington.
  • At the Chenery, there will be wholesale cuts to the long-standing team teaching model in English, math, science social studies and world language in sixth through eighth grades, the eliminate of all eighth grade music and art electives, cutting sections of small group reading and a large reduction in library services.
  • Belmont High School will see the elimination of English, math, social studies and fine and performing arts teacher while all the World Language teachers will be reduced to part-timers.

District wide, the science director will be let go as will a preschool teacher. A reduction of instructional material and supplies, facilities, and professional development while student and rental fees are increased.

In total, Belmont will lose more than 14 teaching positions and nearly ten aides.

For classroom teachers, the cuts will fundamentally change the relationship with their students, said John Sullivan, the president of the Belmont Education Association, which represents Belmont teachers and aides in salary negotiations.

“You can’t get to know [your students] personally, to know when they are upset about something and then reach out to support them. It changes the entire student experience,” said the Belmont resident who teaches at Belmont High School.

While the cuts in teaching staff and other savings will drain the system of its red ink, the impact on students will be significant, said Phelan. For example:

  • Three of every four elementary students, about 1,300, will be in taught in classes exceeding the school committee’s guidelines for effective education.
  • Junior and seniors in high school – more than 600 pupils currently enrolled – will be limited to five courses in a seven-course schedule.
  • The average class size for math and English at the high school will be more than 27, effecting 1,250 students.
  • More than 300 seniors will be unable to take courses that will impact their chances being accepted at high-performing colleges and universities.
  • More than 300 students in the middle school will be heading to study halls due to the cuts in fine and performing arts.

The cut of the science director will seriously delay the district’s plan to move forward with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related courses which national leaders are calling crucial for all citizens to know.

And the loss of aides and guidance councilors in the four elementary schools will reduce the effectiveness of the district’s Response to Intervention services that identifies educational challenges for young students as well as addressing the social and emotional needs of students.

The magnitude of the cuts was unsettling for those who oversee education in Belmont.

“I think it has the potential to really decimate the system,” said Laurie Slap, School Committee Chair.

“What struck me was that one of our colleagues said that it was so sad to see educational opportunities just shrink for our students from K to 12 especially in the high school. Five courses? That isn’t what anyone expects from this district.”

Phelan said the district, and especially Belmont High School, has been worn down over time by trimming courses and reducing staff. With this major hit

“The reductions we are proposing and the elimination of positions are rooted in the methodology in what we need to do first and what we would like to do second. Our ‘likes to do’ are now are stables and cores – the everyday things – in districts that surround us. We will lose even more ground with the proposed budget,” said Phelan.

For Phelan, the School Committee and many attending the meeting, the only way to preserve the district’s reputation is for the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override recommended by the Financial Task Force in January.

“I support the Task Force’s recommendation for the fiscal health of the entire town. If that fiscal health is brought back to a certain level through an injection of funds that goes to sidewalks streets police, fire, and schools, the whole town is a better place,” said Phelan.

At the end of the meeting, Slap said that everyone in town needs to know what the choices they face and everyone needs to get informed to understand what the cuts means to the district.

“It’s important that people get informed and understand what the reductions will bring if we do not pass the … override and get to the polls,” Shea told the Belmontonian.

“Hopefully we can get a coalition of different coalition of different constituent groups that can work cooperatively to make sure our students get the best education they can,” said Sullivan.

A November Override Vote Now ‘Nil’ Due to State, Town Deadlines

The hope of advocates for Belmont schools and town services to place a multi-year operational Proposition 2 1/2 override on the November ballot has been quashed by a combination of a tight state deadline and insufficient time for a committee reviewing the towns financial health to complete its work in time, according to the Selectmen’s chair.

According to Brian McNiff, spokesperson of the Massachusetts Secretary of State office, the secretary’s deadline for reviewing and approving the Proposition 2 1/2 override language so it can be placed on the November 4 state election ballot is August 6.

“[The town] has to have all the work done by that date so we can do the legal review required,” said McNiff.

Andy Rojas, chair of the Belmont Board of Selectmen – the municipal body under state law that must approve both the language and determine whether the town requires an override – told the Belmontonian Wednesday, June 11, a summer cutoff point from the state on top of notification requirements on the Town Clerk all but dooms the proposed November override ballot question.

The early August state drop dead date will not allow the Financial Task Force, a 13-member “mega” committee created last year to conduct a comprehensive review of the town’s finances, highlight possible revenue streams and develop a long-range financial and capital improvement plan, any chance of completing the analysis the Selectmen would require.

“The chances that the Financial Task Force … finishing any of its work to the point where we can reach any clarity on an override is now apparently nil,” said Rojas.

Municipalities must follow a precise list of procedures mandated by the state Secretary of State and the Department of Revenue to place an override question on the ballot.

“It is a very strict on what we require from the towns,” said McNiff, as municipalities follow a template on the why, how much and when of an override request.

Under state law, a Proposition 21⁄2 referenda questions can be placed on the state biennial – every two years – election ballot which has become an important point by Belmont override advocates who hope to benefit from strong voter turnout in a November election with state-wide races – including what many predict will be a competitive race for governor – on the ballot.

“However, those questions must be submitted to the Secretary of State for certification by the first Wednesday in August preceding the [biennial] election. G.L. c. 59, § 21C(i),” according to language on the Revenue Department’s web site. (

In addition to state requirements, Belmont’s Town Clerk “must receive written notice of the referendum at least 35 days before the date of the election. The vote to place a question on the ballot must take place in sufficient time to meet this advance notice requirement,” reads the regulations.

While the Task Force has been working since the beginning of the year on the town’s finances, “they are still working through the facts,” said Rojas.

Rojas said he continues to support placing an override on the ballot “once we have all the information” to determine the need to permanently raise the tax levy.

“I think … the earliest voters will have a chance to vote on the override will be the [annual] Town Election in April,” said Rojas.

Selectmen Chair: 2 1/2 Override ‘Possible’ on November Ballot

Belmont Board of Selectmen Chair Andy Rojas said he is receptive to a Proposition 2 1/2 override to secure long-term funding for town and school needs being placed on the November election ballot.

“I’m going to be pushing the Financial Task Force to move their work a little faster so we can hopefully see an override vote in November,” Rojas told the Belmontonian on Wednesday, June 4 before the final night of the annual Town Meeting.

Election day for state races in Massachusetts is Tuesday, Nov. 4, less than five months away.

“Now is the time to act,” he said.

But an early date for an override, which many advocates believe is critical to secure its passage, ultimately depends on how quickly the nearly year-old task force can complete its mission of producing a comprehensive report, said Rojas.

“We need the facts before us,” he said, adding that the task force’s report should be presented before the Selectmen and the public “at least a month” before any date is selected for the override vote.

Rojas response came after comments last week by several Town Meeting members and from outgoing “interim” Belmont Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston expressing concerns that both schools and town services need an infusion of funding to support needed academic courses and increased teaching levels to match anticipated enrollment growth that currently exceeds the available revenue from the town’s annual 2 1/2 percent increase in tax revenue, new growth and state aid.

” … [I]t’s time for us in the community to turn to our neighbors and say ‘This isn’t right.’ We need to fully fund our schools,” said Christine Kotchem at last week’s Town Meeting.

While the fiscal 2015 School budget, now $46.2 million, saw a four percent increase in available revenue from the previous year, the “wish” list created by the school department of teachers, courses and material needed to keep the schools within a top-tier Level 3 district, according to Kingston who made the statement at Town Meeting.

Rojas said Kingston’s statement concerning the need for an operational override “was the first actual request the board has had in the past four year.”

“I think we need to take it very seriously and I do,” said Rojas.

It has been a dozen years since Belmont voters approved an override, for $2.4 million in June 2002, with the last three attempts, in 2006, 2008 and 2010, defeated by close margins.

While flexible to override advocates in placing the measure in November when voters will also be casting ballots for state-wide offices including a contest governor’s race, Rojas said the board and the public should first review the recommendations from the Task Force, the 13-member “mega” committee created last year charged with creating a comprehensive review of the town’s finances, discover possible new revenue streams and develop a long-range financial and capital improvement plan.

“The preferred course of action is for the Financial Task Force to do its work, create a report and that would inform the decision of the board (of selectmen),” said Rojas.

“If they can do it quicker, great. It all depends on that,” said Rojas.

Yet Rojas also acknowledged that the task force will be required to do a great deal of work during the summer months when meetings and report schedules are impacted by vacations and travel plans of the 13 members.

“Summers are always tough on committees,” said Rojas.

The ‘O’ Word Center Stage During Budget Debate at Town Meeting

It was a pretty expensive springboard – the debate of Belmont’s fiscal 2015 budget – Belmont Town Meeting members used to bring attention to the “O” word during Monday night’s reconvened Town Meeting held at the Chenery Middle School on June 2.

“O”  as in override which advocates for greater spending for the schools and general government are prepared to push the Belmont Board of Selectmen to use its authority to place a multi-year, multi-million dollar operational measure on the ballot.

During Monday’s discussion of the $46.2 million ’15 School District budget – or $52.4 million when government grants and other non-general revenue costs is calculated – members voiced their dissatisfaction with the shortcomings within the schools; which, they claim, must be remedied with additional cash, the sooner the better.

“We can not wait until April [2015, when the Town Election takes place] to decide we’re going to place an override on the ballot and then do it in June when three-quarters of the people who are going to be standing up in favor of this don’t even know there’s a vote,” said Kimberly Becker of Precinct 6.

“We need to have this on the ballot in November when people are out voting” in the general election, said Becker to applause.

“I don’t want anyone telling me we don’t have enough time to do it in November. There is plenty of time,” she said to cheers from supporters.

The throwing down of the override gauntlet by several Town Meeting members on Monday would seem a bit surprising as, unlike years past, the school budget was “drama free” as described by Warrant Committee Chair Mike Libenson. The district – which has been riding high as one of the few top-tier school districts in Massachusetts and Belmont High School ranked 151st in the nation by US News & World Report – is receiving a relatively healthy increase of more than four percent, or about $1.9 million, in available town revenue from the previous year.

Yet the increase spending is only enough to, as the Warrant Committee states will “maintain level services” which includes retaining nearly 19 full-time equivalent classroom positions hired last year just to keep up with 140 new students in the system.

So while the Red Queen can tell Alice that “here we must run as fast as we can just to stay in place,” many Town Meeting members are just not willing to accept the claim that level spending means keeping up with past educational standards.

“We talk about level service budget every single year while we watch many things get cut, class sizes get fuller. This is a joke,” said Anne Mahon of Precinct 4.

“Our kids are losing. We may have gotten into [US News & World Report] but a lot of that is because parents compensate  when their kids get home. Help the school system out, get an override on the ballot and put it out in November when we have time to vote for it,” said Mahon.

As both Laurie Slap, School Committee chair and soon-to-be-leaving “interim” Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston told the meeting, there are serious budgetary worries in the near future, driven by skyrocketing enrollment (up to 500 additional students projected coming to Belmont over the next decade), new salary contracts and greater demands for services by students and staff.

“Sometimes we have to make hard decisions because, just like the family budget, the money will alway be limited,” said Kingston.

Precinct 1’s Rachel Berger, explained that unlike past years, this year “is not a Cadillac budget. I don’t event think this is even your father’s Oldsmobile budget.” 

While the school article did not come under the sort of detailed scrutiny of years past – there were just a few questions before the $46.2 million school expenditure for fiscal 2015 was approved with little opposition – the anxiety of school budgets yet to come served as the catalyst for those in the auditorium who contend that the time to strike the override iron is now.

One of the chief complaints is the myriad of hidden “taxes” residents must currently burden, in the form of substantial student user fees – the family of a three-sport athlete is out $1,100 yearly – to the inability of the district to restores or add to school programing (the district’s “wish list” of programs and staff it could not fund continues to grow).

“We told children to do activities, do sports,” said Precinct 8’s Christine Kotchem. “But now its very, very costly. What do you tell a student when you just can’t pay?”

“Someone paid for our children to do these activities and it’s time for us in the community to turn to our neighbors and say ‘This isn’t right.’ We need to fully fund our schools,” said Kotchem, whose own children graduated from Belmont High School a decade ago.

While the cries of “override” were met with general acclaim within the hall, the same enthusiasm for an increase in homeowners tax bills may not be as universal with the neighborhoods. It has been a dozen years since Belmont voters approved an override, for $2.4 million in June 2002, with the last three attempts (in 2006, 2008 and 2010) defeated by close votes.

But some believe that times are changing on the willingness of communities to shoulder a heavier burden to support “good” schools and there is some evidence of that at yesterday’s special election in Shrewsbury. There voters by a two-to-one margin approved a $5.5 million Proposition 2-1/2 operational override, its first successful override in more than two decades, to add programs, staffing and technology to the schools.