Photo: Belmont School Committee candidate Rachel Watson
Born in a small town in Arizona, who went on to become a nurse, an attorney, and now an administrator and special education advocate, Rachel Watson is seeking election on the Belmont School Committee.
Who is Rachel Watson?
I moved to Belmont eight years ago when my oldest was two, and I was expecting my youngest. I am a single mom, a lawyer, a nurse, and a human resources administrator. My sons are now in fifth grade at Chenery and third grade in the LABBB program at Butler. This year, I am the co-chair of the Belmont Special Education Parent Advisory Council, and I was the chair of the Superintendent Screening Committee. I feel very fortunate to call Belmont home and raise my sons here.
Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?
I am running for the school committee because thoughtful development of our special education program will be required to solve the budget issues facing our district. As a mom to two children in special education, and SEPAC co-chair, I bring a unique perspective on the students and families that will be impacted as we make the needed changes to these programs. As an attorney and a nurse, I also have the skills to quickly make sense of the regulatory framework that must be followed as we work to bring more special education programs in-district. Currently, Belmont’s lack of in-district special education programs requires the placement of many students in costly and distant out-of-district programs. Moving more special education programs in-district is key to alleviating the budget issues facing Belmont.
3. What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?
A school committee member needs to know how to communicate with and collaborate with our diverse and vibrant community. My career has included working with colleagues, clients, and patients from all over the world and all walks of life. I know how to communicate effectively with everyone, from hospital patients experiencing mental illness and homelessness on the streets of L.A. to administrative law judges deciding whether or not my client will have their cancer treatment covered. I have had to deliver the news to my Armenian patient’s family that their loved one had passed and interview Ugandan refugees about the torture they experienced at home as they sought asylum in Japan. I am no stranger to high-stakes conversations. I am able to understand the perspectives of those very different from me and effectively collaborate to solve problems.
Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?
School budgets are unlike those of a business. There are many factors in play that are difficult to predict. For example, the number of students needing special education services rarely remains static, and the level of services they need also fluctuates. If even two more students than predicted must be placed out-of-district, the transportation costs alone can easily run $20,000 annually. Moreover, these services are federally mandated, and failure to provide the services adequately and promptly leads to expensive lawsuits. The failure to accurately predict these costs is a major cause of our current budget woes. Trying to cap budget increases will simply lead to continuing budget crises as we will not have enough money to invest in programs when we need to and then find ourselves in need of even more funds later.
Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?
As a school committee member, it will be on me to help effectively advocate for the override with the rest of the committee. I will work to explain the urgency of funding our schools to our entire community. We must make it clear that our schools are underfunded and that the worst of the negative impacts on our children are being staved off by dedicated educators that are overwhelmed and overworked. The budget is complicated and not always easy to understand, but we must learn from past mistakes and make sure the necessity and wisdom of passing the override is clear.
I also believe our community will support an override if we present a plan to use the funds from the override to invest in programs that will help control costs without sacrificing quality. Belmont residents shoulder a heavy tax burden and should know that these funds will be invested in ways that will help stabilize the school department’s budget. I would work with the administration and my fellow committee members to develop and present this to our community. The override cannot fail, or we will see larger class sizes, more struggling students slipping through the cracks, skilled and experienced educators being let go, and cuts of entire programs such as the currently proposed eliminations of the sixth-grade world language program and fourth-grade strings program. We should not allow such a decline in our schools.
Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?
I think arguing over line items is counter-productive before I have the opportunity to work with the superintendent and the current school committee members to fully understand each line item. However, I would generally prioritize funding items that enhance our ability to identify student needs and serve them as early as possible such as kindergarten aides. The ability to prevent issues earlier in elementary school saves money in the long term, and better serves students.
Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?
The district must do more than provide care to special education students; it must challenge them to reach their fullest potential in education. The key to controlling costs is either working with the LABBB collaborative to expand programs housed in Belmont or developing our own in-district programs. Currently, we have no in-district programs for students who need to learn outside the general education classroom. We do have a few LABBB programs housed in Belmont school buildings, but these are shared with Lexington, Arlington, Bedford, and Burlington and cannot accommodate the demand for spaces in these programs.
The result is that we must send far too many students to costly out-of-district programs and pay to transport them there. The students must endure long commutes and their ability to be included in their own community is limited. This is an equity issue and a strain on the budget. By either expanding LABBB offerings in Belmont or developing our programs, we can increase accountability to families, increase inclusion in our schools, closely assess quality, and control costs.
We must also thoroughly and proactively screen and evaluate students in their early elementary years, especially kindergarten. Then, if a student requires support, we must intervene aggressively. The earlier we supply support, the less likely students are to experience widening gaps in learning and development that are expensive to address and the more likely students are to feel competent in the classroom and achieve the academic excellence Belmont is known for. The pandemic took a severe toll on students, and we can expect to see the impacts for years yet to come. Making sure all of our students leave elementary school with the fundamental math and reading skills they need to succeed and social emotional skills needed to regulate themselves is imperative to maintaining the quality of our schools without having excessive increases in cost.
Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?
I would focus on policy. As an attorney, I am interested in the interplay between state and federal regulations and how we set policy for our school district. I realize I will have much to learn as a new committee member. However, I am accustomed to diving into new fields, learning from those more experienced than me, and adapting my skills to present needs.
What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?
We need a more child-centered school culture. An excellent example of what I mean by that is the recess issue at Chenery. Our fifth-grade students started this year only allowed recess time after they finished their lunch. The lunch period is relatively short, so they often got as little as 3-5 minutes of recess daily, far short of the CDC-recommended 20 minutes daily. After months of parental advocacy, the administration has found ways to implement more recess time for fifth graders but has said there will still be no recess time for sixth graders next year. The school committee should hold the administration accountable for scheduling at least 20 minutes of recess daily for our fifth and sixth graders so they can work on their social skills and be more focused in class. When the school culture is welcoming, and lets kids be kids, academic and behavioral outcomes improve.
At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?
I have laid out ambitious ideas and know that change is rarely quick. First, I will measure my success by concrete progress toward specific goals. I think that if all the students at Chenery Upper Elementary School get at least 20 minutes of recess per day, I would know I have succeeded in moving the school culture toward a more child-centered one. If we have developed and implemented new special education programs either on our own or with LABBB in both the new Belmont Middle School and Chenery Upper Middle School, then I will know we are moving toward securing both quality special education and the long-term health of our school’s finances. However, success as a school committee and a school district is a team effort. My priorities are the ones our community has been telling me they are looking for leadership on, and I think the primary way I will measure my success is if those I serve will continue to look to me to collaborate in solving the issues we face in Belmont, large and small.