School Committee Question of the Week: Should Schools Adopt A Naming Rights Policy

Photo: from left, Murat Bicer, Kimberly O’Mahony, Andrea Prestwich

This week’s Question of the Week for the School Committee:

Many school districts have embracing naming rights on school district-owned property. Naming rights occur when a company or firm purchases the right to place its name and/or logo on a facility or event for a defined period of time. The TD Garden – the sports arena in Boston where the professional teams play – is a nearby example. School districts around the country are moving in this direction – recently Aspen, Colorado – with some agreements reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly to name athletic facilities (or ads on the side of school buses) after a local firm. The money from the namings is mostly targeted towards long-term financial goals. Q: Where do you stand on establishing a naming rights policy for Belmont and would you promote it?

Murat Bicer

The question of selling naming rights to companies to bring in revenue to our district deserves strong consideration. The Financial Task Force report published in early 2015 points to naming rights as a possible source of funds, and lays out a number of critical questions that need to be answered satisfactorily either in by-laws or in any contract with corporate sponsors. I agree that each of these questions is important. I also believe the process by which we develop by-laws and consider sponsors should be transparent and include community participation. The people of Belmont want a healthy school district.  The Committee and district need to have open, cordial, and continual discussions with residents on how to make that happen.  We’re lucky to have generous local businesses who already support our schools through partnerships with the Foundation for Belmont Education, through the performing arts, and on the athletic fields. I commend the FTF for thinking carefully about expanding these partnerships.

Kimberly O’Mahony

Establishing a naming rights policy for Belmont could be a creative way to increase revenue for the District. That being said, specific rules would need to apply to ensure the sponsor’s message agrees with the message of the schools. There are certain categories of companies that would not be suitable such as alcohol or tobacco. Belmont would need to recognize the incredible value it would be providing the sponsor by offering exposure to a new generation of consumers, and realize the proper compensation for that exposure. There would be many other considerations to take into account when creating such a policy, but I would not be against investigating it as an option for Belmont.

Andrea Prestwich

Belmont schools face significant financial challenges in the next few years, including construction of a new High School. Given this reality, I think we should be open to “name rights” deals on big-ticket items. However, before we go down this road the School Committee needs to craft careful policies pertaining to naming rights.  We obviously do not want to name a facility for a tobacco company or gun manufacturers. We also need to protect ourselves from so-called first amendment lawsuits if we reject a sponsor, for example, the Klu Klux Klan won the right to be included in an “Adopt a Highway” program in Missouri. We need to be able to withdraw from a deal if it turns sour. What if we named the new new High School gymnasium for a sports clothing manufacturer who later was discovered to be using child labor? 

One of the most significant downsides to commercial naming is that we lose a sense of community ownership. Think of Joey’s Park or the pool. We could have “sold” the naming rights to these facilities.   Thanks to the vision of a few local leaders, they were rebuilt with the participation of the whole community, including local businesses. The impact of such “barn raising” efforts goes far beyond a new pool and playground. They contribute to a sense of pride in, and ownership of, our town. They encourage us all to be good citizens. My preference is to keep Belmont schools owned by a partnership of citizens and local  businesses rooted in our community.

School Committee QW: Where Do You Stand on High Stakes Testing?

Photo: The candidates: Bicer, O’Mahoney, Prestwich.
The Question of the Week (QW) for the School Committee candidates:
There is a bill in the legislature (H 340) sponsored by the state’s teachers union to halt statewide student testing, calling for a three-year moratorium on the implementation of PARCC – which Belmont has been a test community – and to remove the “high stakes” nature of the existing MCAS tests, ie. in which high school senior would no longer need to pass MCAS to graduate. Teachers say tests take too much time away from educating and don’t reveal just how much a student has learned. Opponents say removing MCAS and other tests could lead to a return of lack of standards and accountability. As members of the school committee, you may well be asked your opinion on this measure. Question: Where do you stand on high stakes testing?

Andrea Prestwich

The MCAS has been to used fulfill the requirements of the Federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). NCLB was enacted with the best of intentions: to use rigorous standardized tests to ensure that all children receive a good education. Tests were used to track individual students progress, evaluate teachers and identify “failing” schools. The stakes were high: schools that did not make sufficient progress were closed, teachers fired, and students prevented from graduating.

Unfortunately, NCLB was a failure. Kids from wealthy families did better on the test than poor kids. Teachers were penalized for working with disadvantaged kids! To improve scores, teachers would focus on test preparation to the extent that other areas of the curriculum suffered. There were reports that struggling high school students were pressured into dropping out to make the average scores better. The tests are extremely stressful for students.

One of the few issues our hideously divided congress could agree on is that NCLB is a failure. Last year congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The ESSA maintains the requirement for states to test, but gives states more freedom to define “school quality” and “accountability”. Given the new responsibilities under ESSA, I support the H340 requirement that the Commonwealth establish a task force to review the use of MCAS or PARCC data. Previous policies have failed, and it is time to re-evaulate what use we make of standardized tests. I also support the moratorium. Test results should not be used for teacher evaluation or student graduation while the task force does its job. To clarify: I fully support standardized testing. Standardized testing is crucial to identify problem areas and measure progress. However, we need to take a break and think about how test data is used in view of the failures of the past decade.

Murat Bicer

I am not generally in favor of standardized testing. Research shows that test results correlate above all to socio-economic conditions and may be unable to parse the quality of education at the individual or classroom level.  Many tests are criticized for being biased and the system of test taking disadvantages students who have difficulties with structured, timed activities. I believe that multiple-choice tests are not a good indicator of how much a student has learned, or whether that student has the qualities that good students should have – like creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity. Any student who is struggling with basic skills should be identified and supported well before a test result points out his deficiencies. It is true, however, that Belmont has in the past used test results to identify areas of relatively weaker performance and make positive changes in those areas.  

The Massachusetts Education Reform Laws of 1993 necessitate “a variety of assessment instruments” whose purpose is to evaluate student performance and to “improve the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction.” Tests have been credited with ensuring a certain quality standard across the state, but they’re imperfect. Unfortunately for all, many of the other “assessment instruments” such as descriptive reporting and subjective, essay-based testing are more difficult to administer and often put additional burden on the teachers, and that’s likely why testing has become the primary “instrument.”  

We can probably all agree that accountability and adherence to a basic standard curriculum is necessary, but that needs to happen on a day to day basis within the school community, not as a result of, or in pursuit of, a test score.

Kimberly O’Mahoney

Personally, I have never been a big fan of standardized tests,  but my only experience has been in the seat of a test-taker.  I never felt that the tests provided the “bigger picture” of my educational experience and abilities. The testing also is narrowed to only include certain subjects, leaving behind the notion that a well-rounded educational experience (including extra-curricular areas) is most beneficial to the children. That being said, there are also benefits to the testing that is being administered. It does help support accountability and possibly identify those areas in the curriculum that may need review and reinforcement. Belmont, though, has always prided itself on the high quality of education that it affords the children in the District. With or without standardized tests, Belmont will keep this a priority. I don’t believe that the high standards that our educators are held to will diminish if this moratorium is put in place. It may allow for greater flexibility in instruction and allow classes to delve further into subject areas without the constraints of focusing on and preparing for the “test material.”

Selectmen QW: Belmont’s OPEB Policy and Issuing Pension Obligation Bonds



Through the efforts of Selectman Williams, the town is moving forward with a study of recommendations towards addressing the town’s long-term OPEB (Other post-employment benefits) but many – town officials and the majority of the Board – are reluctant to follow Williams’ call for the issuance of up to $60 million in Pension Obligation Bonds (POBs). Question: Where do you stand on the town’s OPEB policy and would you currently consider the town issuing POBs?

Mark Paolillo 

Pensions and Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) are two different issues and must be viewed separately.  

State law establishes Belmont’s retiree pension obligations.  Belmont’s Retirement Board is authorized to determine how to fund our retirement obligations and to manage investments designed to fund them.  In 2015, the Warrant Committee issued a Pension report analyzing different options for funding our pension liability; the Selectmen have and should continue to discuss this with the Retirement Board.  

  • Extending the amortization period from 2027 to some later date could reduce the contribution pension impact on annual budgets.  
  • Pension Obligation Bonds (POBs) are a bet that pension investments will exceed the cost of borrowing.  Moody’s has indicated that POBs typically create additional risks, including budgetary and default risk.  GFOA recommends that local governments not issue POBs.  I would not subject taxpayers’ money to risks of this type.  

OPEB consists primarily of retiree health care, a benefit provided to Belmont’s retirees.  To date, payments for retiree health care have been manageable because we adopted healthcare reforms allowing us to effectively control health insurance costs — under one percent growth annually for the last three years.  

Working with the Treasurer, the Selectmen adopted an OPEB Funding policy that Moody’s reviewed favorably. It created an OPEB Irrevocable Trust Fund and ensured that a fixed percentage of free cash is deposited in that Fund every year.  

In 2015, the Selectmen established the OPEB Funding Advisory Group.  On Feb. 7, it reported that the actuarial estimate of Belmont’s unfunded liability is likely overstated.  The group was asked to: (1) continue its work and provide us with a more accurate estimate of our unfunded liability based on key cost data; and (2) analyze options to control this liability. This additional information will help the Selectmen to determine the most prudent course of action. 

Alexandra Ruban

Selectman Williams deserves credit for encouraging the town’s government to take a hard look at our unfunded pension obligations. These issues, if left unaddressed, will only get worse. I commend him for insisting that Belmont’s leadership investigate creative solutions for addressing our pension and other postemployment benefits (OPEB) obligations. 

However, Belmont is hardly alone; 254 of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts have more than $26 billion in unfunded health care liabilities for public retirees and billions more in unfunded pension liabilities. Nineteen cities and towns have unfunded pension liabilities that top $300 million. Belmont’s roughly $59 million in unfunded pensions and $60 million in OPEB liabilities ($4,825 per capita) is in the middle of the pack.  

Mr. Williams’s support for a bond is one solution, but there are other options that would not require a substantial increase in property taxes. 

A decade ago Belmont’s Board of Selectmen adopted an accelerated schedule for meeting the town’s unpaid pension liabilities. We will be paid up ten years earlier than the state requires – with no clear benefit. These payments have been growing slowly but are now set to balloon, rising at a compounded rate of 7 percent annually until 2027. By simply amortizing our payments over the full period permitted by the state and paying off our pension obligations before 2040, the town would substantially decrease the strain on its budget at no cost to taxpayers or risk to its AAA credit rating. 

The town has started examining alternative options to preserve promised benefits while reducing the cost to taxpayers – one example, by working with its employee unions. Should bonding emerge as the most prudent course forward, I’m confident that the Board and the voters will pursue that course, but we should look at all available options before committing ourselves to any course of action. 

School Committee QW: Integrating English As Second Language Students Into Schools

Photo: The candidates for School Committee: (from left) O’Mahony, Prestwich and Bicer.

Here is the Question of the Week (QW) for the School Committee candidates:

The number of students coming into the Belmont school system from outside the US or who speak a language other than English is growing as is the demand for educators to teach ELL students. With the understanding that the committee is a policy-making body, do you have any plans/programs that you believe will help integrate students more efficiently into our schools. 

Kimberly O’Mahony

I am in awe when I think about how diverse our community is; it’s wonderful! This does make it hard, though, for educators to keep all of the children learning at the same pace due to the challenges facing those whose first language is not English. It would be most productive to consider the pressures regarding this issue, prioritize by impact and ability to alleviate, and identify ways to improve the high-risk areas while keeping the best interest of the children and faculty in mind as well as the budget constraints.  

I am not running for School Committee with an agenda, nor am I armed with an arsenal of answers.  Rather, I am running with a vision of working collaboratively with the School Committee and other committees/town departments to identify the best solutions to the problems we are facing with a thoughtful and fiscally-aware approach. Along with that, always keeping in mind that the main driver is to sustain, support, and enhance the high quality of our education system that the faculty and support staff produces in Belmont each and every day.

Andrea Prestwich

The number of students who do not speak English as their native language (English Language Learners or ELL) has increased from 95 to 261 in Belmont over the last six years. These children face unique challenges. The percentage of ELL or kids who were once ELL who graduate from high school is dramatically lower than for native English speakers.  Early intervention to mitigate the disadvantages they face is, therefore, crucial.

My understanding is that Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) is regarded by education professionals as the most effective way to teach ELL. The term “sheltered” dates back to the 1980s when ELL was taught in separate classrooms. Today, SEI refers to teaching techniques that are used to make content accessible to ELLs in a mainstream classroom.  The dual goal is to teach ELL grade-level content while increasing their English proficiency. Strategies include allowing students extra time to formulate answers, simplifying teaching language and using visuals to reinforce the main points of the lesson.  

Implementing SEI in Belmont classrooms requires clustering  ELL into groups or teams.  Another key requirement is to have Belmont teachers become proficient in SEI techniques. It will be necessary for increasing numbers of Belmont teachers to become SEI certified to support these children. As part of the RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners) initiative, Massachusetts requires that all teachers who have one or more ELL in their classroom attend an SEI Endorsement Course within one year of being assigned the student.

Murat Bicer

Integrating ELL students into our community and schools is important because integration and language mastery often go hand in hand.  If we are able to move students to proficiency more quickly there is less cost to the district and less chance for the student to fall behind academically.

Integration for school-aged children must begin with and include their families. ELL families face challenges everywhere from figuring out how to register for school, to understanding school procedures, to knowing how to participate in Second Soccer. Belmont is fortunate to have an active and engaged parent population, and we can use this resource through the organization of the PTO to establish integration opportunities. For instance, we could work to match new ELL families with English-proficient families of the same first language, giving the newcomers a sympathetic place to ask questions and learn about the workings of the town. Let’s also look to the Recreation Department to target outreach to ELL families. Sports, free play, and other out-of-school activities are fertile times to learn English.

Finally, let’s not overlook the enormous leaps forward in translation technologies. Many are available at little to no cost and could be utilized both in the classroom and with families. Translation services represent a significant portion of the district’s ELL budget. New technologies may allow us gain some savings while at the same time increasing the amount of translated material we are able to produce.


School Committee Candidates QW: The One Issue The Board Should Focus On

Photos: (from left) Murat Bicer, Kimberly O’Mahony, Andrea Prestwich.

Welcome to the first QW (Question of the Week) for the three candidates seeking to fill to two open three-year seats on the Belmont School Committee at town election on April 5. The order in which the candidates answered this week is by alphabetical order. 

Name the one issue you believe the board should focus on in your tenure on the school board?

Murat Bicer

I believe the most important issue facing the school board over the next three years is increasing enrollment. Families with school-age children are moving to town as housing comes to market, and new multi-unit developments are likely to bring additional students. A growing number of students require mandated English language learning and special education. These two factors put pressure both on our school budget and on our facilities.  

In the fall of 2012, the town convened a task force to study the issue of increasing enrollment and recommend strategic solutions. While a number of viable solutions were proposed, there was little budget to affect the changes. Since that time, two very important developments have occurred.  First, Belmont residents passed a $4.5 million Proposition 2.5 override. Second, the Massachusetts School Building Authority voted to move Belmont High School forward in its process, which will provide state cost sharing in the construction of a much needed new campus that can reflect our current and future needs.  

As a school committee member, I will use my deep experience in financial management and operational planning to ensure that the best decisions are made for immediate impact as well as future stability for our excellent schools. I will look to recommendations already made by the task force and welcome new ideas, while measuring each against the fiscal cost to our community. It is imperative that every dollar we spend on our schools has a direct, positive impact on the education of our children. Our focus needs to be on building a high school facility that can last us another 50 years, and enough flexibility in our lower schools to respond to enrollment fluctuations.

The most pressing issue facing the Belmont Public Schools over the next three years is the management of increasing enrollment. There is a lack of space throughout the district and the population of the town is ever-growing. The quality of our education system is the reason that people come to Belmont and is why they will continue to come; it’s why my husband and I moved here 12 years ago! We knew the reputation of the schools in Belmont and wanted our family to be educated in the best public schools in the area. 

In order for our town to uphold this reputation, we have an obligation to ensure every child is supported, especially at the elementary level where many children are learning to speak English. Belmont has a very diverse community, which makes living here so rich and rewarding.  With that diversity, though, comes more responsibility – especially in supporting and scaffolding children’s abilities.

As a first step, the School Committee voted unanimously to decline participation in School Choice at last Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting. Participating in School Choice would only add to the enrollment pressures that we already feel with the population that resides in Belmont. The School Committee will be critical in identifying solutions that will bring about positive change to alleviate the pressure of this issue.

Andrea Prestwich

The most critical issues facing Belmont schools are spiraling enrollment and the need for a new high school. Both of these issues require careful strategic planning by the School Committee and a willingness to advocate for an override to fund the new high school. These issues must be addressed otherwise our schools will fall apart (almost literally in the case of the high school!

We also need to transition BHS and Chenery to healthier (i.e. later) start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control both recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow adolescents to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation among adolescents is a serious public health issue. Although there is an overwhelming medical consensus in favor of later start times,  this issue seldom gets to the top of a School Districts’s  priority list – there are always competing issues! If elected to the School Committee, I will devote time and energy to working for healthier school hours. I will not let later start times be squeezed off the agenda by managing the enrollment and a new high school. Enrollment and a new high school are critical, but so is sleep. We must work on all three.  

Selectman Candidates’ Question of the Week: A Vision for Future Development in Belmont

Photo: Andy Rojas.

Every Wednesday leading up the Town Election on Tuesday, April 7, the Belmontonian will be asking a “Question of the Week” to the candidates running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen: incumbent Andy Rojas and Glenn Road resident Jim Williams.

This weekly feature will allow the candidates seeking a three-year term on the board to answer topical questions concerning Belmont and help demonstrate their ability to lead the town.

This week’s question: There is a critical need in Belmont to promote new growth and increase the tax base. What is your vision for future development in Belmont? Where do you think those opportunities exist within the town?

Andy Rojas

Belmont’s development future must be guided by the needs of our residents, the expansion of our commercial tax base and the enhancement of Belmont’s physical character. My entire adult life has been spent managing development so it fits the neighborhood and environmental context contained in each proposal. Applying my professional experience to town service has demonstrated my commitment to sensitive development that respects and enhances Belmont.

Belmont’s budget struggles often end up imposing a financial burden on the primary revenue generators — residential taxpayers. Well planned economic development in our business districts can change that; commercial taxpayers typically use fewer town services and therefore, have fewer negative impacts on town expenditures.

New development potential exists in Cushing Square, Waverley Square, Belmont Center, South Pleasant Street and Brighton Street among other key business areas. Transitional commercial areas such as Benton Square, Palfrey Square and other small neighborhood commercial areas also have potential for suitable contextual development.

Planning and design must provide necessary commercial services while limiting and mitigating traffic, mass and density impacts. Residents and neighborhoods must be protected with appropriate controls including overlay districts, zoning laws and demolition delay among others.

  • I have worked on revitalizing Belmont’s business districts — large and small — for the past decade and can combine my professional expertise with the Belmont background and experience needed to make these projects successful.

Fitting development to Belmont’s needs can be done most effectively by creating thoughtful overlay districts in key areas. My experience with Belmont’s overlay districts, zoning laws and demolition moratoriums will let me move Belmont forward.

The Cushing Square Overlay District (CSOD) should be updated in light of the Cushing Village developers’ interpretation of the by-law; tighter controls on mass, height and density are needed. CSOD allows for additional development; I will work with the Planning Board and the neighborhood to update and clarify the by-law’s requirements so future development adheres to better targeted, community-based standards.

New overlay district by-laws should be considered for Waverley Square and South Pleasant Street, which will likely see increased development pressure. Partnering with surrounding neighborhoods is critical to their success and effectiveness as important, protective planning tools. I am committed to leading this effort and to using my expertise and Belmont know-how to make them work.

Business district revitalization has begun with restaurants and stores such as Savinos, Il Casale, Spirited Gourmet, Vintages, Craft Beer Store and El Centro; they have opened because Belmont has issued more restaurant and alcohol licenses. The Belmont Center Reconstruction Project, Trapelo Road Reconstruction Project, Macy’s building redevelopment and the construction of Cushing Village will provide even greater commercial growth that will help alleviate the residential taxpayer burden.

Expanding Belmont’s commercial tax base is vital to the long term financial stability of the town, will help mitigate the impact of residential taxes that currently comprise approximately 94 percent of Belmont’s revenue, and will provide the vibrant shopping and dining environment residents deserve.

I respectfully request your vote for Selectman on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Thank you.

Jim Williams

Belmont is as close to fully developed in terms of available land as any town I know. We have an interesting conundrum here in that we aim to preserve a small-town, community feel, while continuing to advance the growing needs of our community.  

Selectman+Williams+2015-03-08+0001 (1)-2-2

I truly believe that development opportunities reside in Belmont’s commercial centers – Cushing and Waverly Squares, Belmont Center, and along Belmont Street – in order to capitalize on increased revenue (from taxes). Encouraging mixed-use development such as the Cushing Square development plan would promote a business- and commuter-friendly eco-system, while increasing our revenue. Because trains and buses serve the centers, there would be an inherent increase in foot traffic desirable to our local businesses.

Thriving commercial centers promote a sense of community and energy, while increasing engagement in the town.  On the flip side is the fact that our public services are overwhelmed and underfunded, which need to be addressed before expanding our tax base for the sake of revenue while increasing costs to serve the needs of our newest residents.  This balance is best achieved by a fully-functional town management that prioritizes fiscal responsibility and servicing our community and infrastructure. I consider development part of a larger solution within the plan I have offered our beloved Belmont.

Selectman Candidates’ Question of the Week: Mitigating the Impact of Belmont Uplands

Photo: Jim Williams.

Every Wednesday leading up the Town Election on Tuesday, April 7, the Belmontonian will be asking a “Question of the Week” to the candidates running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen: incumbent Andy Rojas and Glenn Road resident Jim Williams.

This weekly feature will allow the candidates seeking a three-year term on the board to answer topical questions concerning Belmont and help demonstrate their ability to lead the town.

This week’s question: Over the three-year term beginning on April 8, what will you do to mitigate the expected effects of the 299-unit Belmont Uplands development on town resources and the local environment?

Jim Williams

The proposed development in the Uplands is a situation where we have to prepare for the worst, and collaborate to achieve the best outcome. While it is, of course, disheartening to see the Silver Maple Forest surrounding the Uplands disappearing, there is still much that I, as Belmont Selectman, can be done to ensure that the developer adheres to 40B affordable housing regulations. The environmental impact is also of utmost concern and traffic issues must be addressed. 

We must prepare now for the impact of an additional 299 housing units will have on town resources and our already over-crowded schools.  My plan is to work with the developer and the town with the goal of ensuring the best outcome for the Uplands and the Town of Belmont. 

First, we need to determine the net cost to the town based on the number of units, number of residents, and impact on our utilities. We do not have clear estimates for the number of additional children; nor do we know how traffic patterns and congestion will impact us. It is my understanding that, as of yet, the Board of Selectmen has not run a model nor have they asked the planning board to develop a model to estimate costs of services, and look at any benefits from tax or other revenue. How can we prepare for the strains on our system if we aren’t willing to make projections?

Second, major environmental concerns are two-fold: flooding and pollution. The developer is using storm water data from 1961; when in in actuality the 2011 rainfall statistics shows 150,000 gallons in excess storm water. Not only is there a risk of flooding, the excess storm water also impacts pollution at the site.

Third, the developer needs to proactively fund and put in place certain measures to mitigate traffic. The most practical change we can implement to help with traffic would be to build the tunnel under the railroad at Alexander Avenue. This has the potential to reduce traffic on Brighton Road, one of the roads which would be most severely affected by traffic from the Uplands development.

I believe the most alarming challenge we face with the Uplands development is the sheer increase in population; which means more cars on already less-than-acceptable roads and a further strain on our town services, such as police and fire, and utilities like sewer and water and electricity.  Furthermore, our school system is growing at an unprecedented rate, and an additional rapid in-flux of students into our already overcrowded schools may push us to a breaking point.  

All of this requires fiscal discipline and diplomatic solutions to ensure that we balance the outcome of the Uplands development with our current and future needs. I have a proven track record in ensuring that the best outcomes are achieved within the parameters of our financial constraints and available revenue. My plan shows promise and potentially and optimistic outlook for the Town. Facing our financial problems head-on is the only way we are going to preserve the town we love.

Andy Rojas

As required, because all necessary state permit conditions had been met, the Community Development Department recently issued a foundation permit for the Uplands residential development; project construction will now begin in earnest. The full impact of this project on Belmont will take a number of years to be felt. However, the town must prepare for the aftermath of this unfortunate occurrence and deal with any immediate effects.

  • This is an area where my extensive site development and mitigation experience will be extremely helpful to Belmont.

Since the project is comprised of five separate residential buildings, it is likely that the impact on Belmont’s services — schools, police, fire, etc. — will be felt in waves as each construction phase is completed. However, the primary environmental impacts on flooding and habitat destruction will likely be apparent as soon as the site has been cleared of vegetation in preparation for foundation construction.

Protecting the Belmont neighborhoods most directly affected by the environmental consequences of the Uplands development will be a central theme of ongoing reviews and approvals during construction. I am committed to using my site development and mitigation expertise in helping to protect these neighborhoods.

  1. I will work with the Community Development Department and our construction control team to make sure that all construction activity adheres to the law and to all applicable environmental regulations and best practices.
  2. All environmental impacts relating to water management, stormwater control/storage and natural habitat disturbance will be monitored to make sure that the project abides by approval conditions.
Andy & Smudge Rojas - IMG_0779

Andy Rojas and Smudge.

Accommodating the Uplands’ projected post-construction requirements for town services will be very challenging. Uplands property taxes will not cover costs.

As each project phase is completed, the school-age population will increase; students must be absorbed and placed appropriately. While projections of student numbers are an inexact science, Belmont will inevitably be faced with providing quality education, transportation and perhaps additional mandated services to this larger population. I will work closely with the Schools Superintendent and the School Committee to carefully gauge and accommodate this influx from start to finish.

The Uplands’ other projected demands on town services such as police, fire and emergency response will also require constant monitoring and adjustment; much of this will happen as each construction phase is completed. Given the Uplands’ geographic location, the town departments affected may require additional personnel and vehicles to properly service the completed project.

A police sub-station within one of the buildings is a possibility. While this will be a bigger burden for Belmont, as a community, we must support the life, safety and security of our new residents.

My experience with these departments as well as with my understanding of their capabilities, needs and budgets will allow me to work with them so we can address these challenges effectively.

I respectfully request your vote for Selectman on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Thank you.

Selectman Candidates’ Question of the Week: Where Do You Stand on the ‘McMansion’ Moratorium?

Every Wednesday leading up the Town Election on Tuesday, April 7, the Belmontonian will be asking a “Question of the Week” to the candidates running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen: incumbent Andy Rojas and Glenn Road resident Jim Williams.

This weekly feature will allow the candidates seeking a three-year term on the board to answer topical questions concerning Belmont and help demonstrate their ability to lead the town.

This week’s question: The construction of oversized and out-of-scale residential homes – known as “McMansions” – has become a hot button issue in Belmont and in neighboring towns. The annual Town Meeting in May will be presented a demolition moratorium on new homes that exceed a maximum height and mass in Precinct 7’s Shaw Estates neighborhood. Do you support the petition or not?

Andy Rojas

The character of Belmont’s neighborhoods has been under assault for at least a decade. Teardowns of existing residences have yielded much denser replacements that max out building height and mass while reducing open space, light and air. Increased density of units on existing lots also contributes to increased physical congestion and character erosion.

Development controls such as the recent GR District By-Law and the proposed Precinct 7 Demolition Moratorium By-Law are necessary to retain the architectural character and social demographics of our neighborhoods.

  • I support these actions and would like to see them extended to most of Belmont’s residential areas.

I will initiate and carry out work with the Planning Board, Community Development Department and other appropriate town agencies so a comprehensive Subdivision Control By-Law can be developed. Such a by-law is needed to preserve the historically large lots in many Belmont residential neighborhoods, including Belmont Hill, that are threatened by:

  1. subdivision pressure, increased density and traffic; and
  2. changes to their general character and ‘feel’.

This form of increased density is just as pervasive and destructive to Belmont’s character and charm as out-of-scale building on smaller lots. Both threats must be addressed.

While it is critical to balance benefits to the entire community with the private property rights of owners, we must act now to preserve and protect what has historically made Belmont so desirable as a residential community. The rights of residents should include not having the scale, density, mass and overall character of the neighborhood they chose to live in dramatically change due to unrestrained re-development. We must protect and enhance the basic, underlying characteristics that have evolved into our ‘Town of Homes’.

Preserving Belmont’s character requires effective and targeted use of zoning by-laws and overlay districts as well as approval of projects reflecting community context and values. Our Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are often residents’ last line of defense against overbuilding. I pledge to appoint board members who will prioritize respect for the town’s character as well as residents’ rights.

Significant professional building and site experience, work as a landscape architect plus many years of Planning Board service qualified me to plan community-sensitive projects and draft bylaws including, but not limited to, the Oakley Village Overlay District; I actively supported the Demolition Delay By-Law. Understanding the past helps me plan Belmont’s future.

I am committed to intelligent residential development and re-development that expands Belmont’s tax base, serves residents and retains our physical, cultural and social character. Belmont can achieve this by utilizing my extensive experience and expertise.

I respectfully request your vote for Selectman on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Thank you.

Jim Williams

I support the proposed moratorium on over sized teardown replacements for a number of reasons.

First, this is an example of Belmont residents stepping forward to take action, through a democratic process, regarding something that directly affects their neighborhood and quality of life. It does not prevent landowners from selling or renovating their properties, nor does it prevent the teardown and replacement of similarly-sized dwellings. Instead, it provides for a period to re-evaluate this town-wide trend toward the demolition of modest homes in favor of large so-called McMansions.

Jim Williams

Jim Williams.

These large, over-sized dwellings, can have adverse impacts on a neighborhood, and it is in response to this concern that the residents have moved this article forward. During this one-year moratorium period, I hope we can, as a town, consider planning tools that both allow for responsible re-development and also protect the character of our neighborhoods.

Large, over-sized dwellings that fill small lots up to the zoning limits of height, set-back and lot coverage are often much greater in elevation and overall mass than their neighbors. They increase impervious surface and therefore contribute to increased storm-water runoff. In many cases, they replace more modest affordable dwellings thus reducing the diversity of housing stock, particularly for young families, first-time home buyers, and families on fixed incomes such as seniors. The size of these houses can, without extreme energy-saving measures, disproportionately increase the energy demand on the town and its infrastructure and thus drive up energy costs for the town. In several instances, this trend has resulted in the demolition of historic houses and the loss of irreplaceable reminders of Belmont’s history.

Ultimately, Town Meeting will decide the fate of the proposed moratorium. But, in the interim, I wholeheartedly support this article as an example of the neighborhood’s right to shape it’s own future, and more importantly, the message it sends to Town Government regarding the need to re-evaluate and direct future development in a responsible manner town-wide.

Selectman Candidates’ Question of the Week: ‘What’s Your First Act if the Override is Approved, Rejected?’

Photo: Jim Williams

Every Wednesday leading up the Town Election on Tuesday, April 7, the Belmontonian will be asking a “Question of the Week” to the candidates running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen: incumbent Andy Rojas and Glenn Road resident Jim Williams.

This weekly feature will allow the candidates seeking a three-year term on the board to answer topical questions concerning Belmont and help demonstrate their ability to lead the town.

This week’s question: The $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override before Belmont voters on April 7: What would your first act be as a selectman if voters approve the override; and, if they reject it? Be specific.

The position of the answers will alternate each week with Williams having the top spot this week.

Jim Williams

Now that the current Board of Selectman chaired by Andy Rojas put a $4.5 million override on the ballot, it’s very important for the long-term financial stability of the town, its citizens and its creditors that this override is approved as proposed on April 7. Approval will prevent $1.7 million of unnecessary cuts to the school budget and, equally as important  $1.1 million unnecessary cuts to other Town services  in fiscal 2016.

However, even with approval, Belmont’s  financial crisis will continue for the next thirteen years and beyond unless we do something about the $113 million pension fund amortization schedule thru 2027 and the $200 million OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) obligation projected for 2022.

I have a clear plan for addressing  both obligations. The two key drivers of the plan are 1) refinancing the pension obligation with a bond issue and 2) funding the unfunded OPEB  obligation by making a $2.5 million annual contribution to the fund. We can pay off the  pension obligation by issuing a 20 year, $60 million, <3% municipal bond in 2016. The bond would be paid off  by $4 million annual payments thru 2035 which would be funded by a debt exclusion. The OPEB fund contribution should be funded by override because the operating and capital budgets cannot accommodate such a recurring contribution and the growth of OPEB obligations were not anticipated by Proposition 2 1/2. The door-to-door cost of the pension strategy is $80 million compared to the cost of the current strategy which is $113 million. This approach will save us $33 million, fix the cost of the pension funding for the next 20 years, and  return the $113 million in scheduled pension amortization payments  to the operating and capital budgets thru 2027.

My plan is not only the most responsible way of getting over these huge financial obstacles, but it is also essential to the future financial well being of the town. Also, moving forward from 2016, if we can control our expenses to <3%  annual increase per year, the town’s budget would remain in surplus through 2031 which will allow us to replenish our reserves for the inevitable unforeseen need.

So, when  the proposed $4.5 million override is approved, my first act would be two fold: begin to work on refinancing the pension fund amortization and  funding the OPEB obligations in 2016 which will return the $113 million in scheduled pension amortization payments to the operating and capital budgets thru 2027.

If the voters don’t approve the override, my first act would be to seek alternative funding to avoid the school cuts for, at the least, 2016. Then, I would do the same things outlined above for the pension and the OPEB funds.

Again, my plan is essential to the future financial well being of the town and should have been adopted in 2012 when it was clear that the pension fund amortization would put the town’s budget  in deficit.

Andy Rojas

Regardless of the override outcome, as Selectman, I will use the in-depth experience and knowledge obtained both in my first term and from extensive town service to faithfully implement the will of the voters.


If the override is approved, I will follow Financial Task Force (FTF) recommendations closely. The FTF worked for over a year to develop its carefully thought out, unanimous blueprint.

Immediate FY 2016 actions will include fully funding seven new school positions (approximately $500,000), stabilizing the school department budget (approximately $1.7 million shortfall) and implementing approximately $620,000 in capital budget items. These consist of $300,000 for the pavement management plan, $200,000 for annual sidewalk repair and $120K for debt service payments. I will direct the Public Works and Community Development Departments to undertake road and sidewalk repairs and replacements.

The override completely funds Belmont schools for the coming fiscal year. Increased enrollment, new unfunded mandates for special education, English language learners (ELL) and out of district (OOD) student placements will be accommodated effectively.

The remaining override funds will be placed in a stabilization fund designated for unforeseen budget fluctuations and, per FTF recommendations, for preparation for FY 2017 and FY 2018 budget needs.

Additionally, I will work to enact the other important FTF structural and non-structural budget reform recommendations (among other reforms) so another override will not be needed any time soon.

Andy, Allison & Smudge Rojas - IMG_0827

Andy Rojas, his wife, Allison Miele Rojas, and Smudge.


If the override is rejected, I will work carefully with the School Superintendent, Town Administrator, Warrant Committee and my Board of Selectmen (BoS) colleagues to make necessary town and school cuts.

  • Schools would require targeted, prioritized reductions to remove approximately $1.7 million in expenses from the FY2016 budget.
  • The town, with a very lean current operating budget, is not directly affected by the override. However, it would not receive the override’s approximately $620K for road and sidewalk capital budget improvements.

This will necessarily be very challenging. It’s why Belmont needs an experienced Selectman who already understands in-depth, the relationships between budget items and department needs and who can work within the available revenue budget without compromising town services or the Level 1 ranking of our schools.

If additional revenue sources are identified during FY 2016, I will work with the School Superintendent, the Town Administrator and my BoS colleagues to allocate the funds to the highest priority needs. I am already up-to-speed on the budget, the appropriation process, town and school operations and requirements and, as the current BoS Chair and a Warrant Committee member, will be able to make the requisite difficult decisions based on experience.


Both scenarios depend on effective communications between the BoS, School Department, Town Administrator, Warrant Committee and related town departments. I have worked closely with all these groups and have a proven track record of effective communication and engagement that has resulted in forward-looking financial management of town resources. Continuing this broad engagement will give Belmont the best outcomes in the future.

I respectfully request your vote for Selectman on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Thank you.