League of Women Voters Holding Special Town Meeting Preview Monday

Photo: Modular classrooms.

The Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring a warrant briefing to acquaint Town Meeting members and residents with the articles in the Special Town Meeting warrant.

The meeting will take place Monday evening, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting members and the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads concerning any of the warrant articles prior to the Special Town Meeting to be held in one week on Monday, Nov. 13. Articles will include the financing of modular classrooms at the Burbank school and changing the selection of Planning Board members from appointed to elected.

Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein will lead the meeting.

Town Meeting Preview: Warrant Briefing Monday Night at the Beech

Photo: Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein

The Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring the annual warrant briefing to acquaint Town Meeting members and residents with the non-financial articles on the Town Meeting warrant.

The meeting will take place Monday evening, April 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting members and the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads concerning any of the warrant articles prior to the 2017 Town Meeting beginning in one week on Monday, May 1. 

Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein will preside.

This year, Town Meeting Moderator Michael Widmer will hold an orientation/information session for new Town Meeting members at 6:30 p.m. immediately prior to the warrant discussion. All Town Meeting member is welcome to attend this session.

Proposed ’18 Town Budget Tops $110 Million, Up 3.6%

Photo: David Kale, Belmont Town Administrator

Belmont’s next budget will see healthy increases in both the town and schools with some hopeful news on “stretching out” the monies that came from the 2015 Proposition 2 1/2 override.

The proposed fiscal 2018 town-wide budget – which begins on July 1, 2017 – is pegged at $110,210,440, an increase of $3.9 million or 3.6 percent, according to outgoing Town Administrator David Kale who presented the budget before a joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen, School and Warrant committees at Town Hall on Monday, Feb. 13.

The presentation consisted of the first preliminary outline – albeit a relatively detailed blueprint – of the town’s financial balance sheet which will be voted on at the annual Town Meeting in June.

When asked by Selectman Jim Williams how complete an outline was before them, Kale affirmed it was more than “90 percent” complete, noting that changes will be coming to the town’s revenue line items. He pointed to state aid to cities and towns coming from Beacon Hill will not be finalized until later in the spring. Kale said it is likely that Belmont will see a small increase in the $600,000 forecast heading to Belmont from the State House.

The biggest component of the budget is, as it is every year, the public schools which will come in at $53.1 million, an increase of $3.1 million from 2017, a 6.0 percent jump. According to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, the jump in costs are directly related to the continued unprecedented increase in students enrolling in Belmont schools. 

Phelan said annually 100 students are entering the Belmont system straining the district with the number of pupils in classrooms, the need for more teachers and staff as well as requiring the district to purchase a second set of modular classrooms in the coming year just to keep pace. 

Expenses from the “town” side of the budget – town services and public safety – will see a 4.2 percent increase (approximately $1.6 million) from 2017 to $38.4 million.

Fixed costs – debt payments, retirement assessments, road repair – which makes up 16 percent of the total budget will see an increase of $600,000 to $17.2 million.

On the revenue side, Kale said 90 cents of every dollar coming into the town’s coffers were from real estate and property taxes ($88.5 million, 80 percent) and state aid from the State House ($10 million, 9 percent). Total property taxes will see an increase of $3.2 million or 3.7 percent from 2017 figures.

Belmont is expecting to see in fiscal 2018 a boost in other revenue sources including $200,000 in meals, motor vehicle, and payments instead of taxes and another $200,000 in local receipts.

Kale, who is leaving for a position at the City of Cambridge in March, noted that due to favorable increases in “new growth” and state aid, the town will only require $1.3 million from the General Stabilization Fund, the $4.5 million in additional funds approved in a Prop 2 1/2 override in April 2015, to balance the budget.

Kale said through belt-tightening and a jump in revenue; budget planners were able to cut nearly in half the original $2.2 million they scheduled to take from the line item. He said that figure could be reduced further if added revenues come to Belmont. 

By reducing its reliance on the stabilization fund this year, Kale said the town could rely on it for more than the three years it was originally slated to last.

As Town Meeting Ponders Bolting Minuteman, Belmont Prepares ‘Pathway’ for Voc Students

Photo: Roy Epstein, chair of the Belmont Warrant Committee

As the Belmont Town Meeting prepares to vote on the future of the town’s four decades partnership with the Minuteman Regional School District – the home of Minuteman Vocational Tech High School – the educator in charge of Belmont’s own district is already preparing a set of “pathways” to provide students seeking a vocational education “access to quality” classes if two-thirds of Town Meeting ultimately votes no. 

While many Town Meeting members and residents who attended this Monday’s warrant briefing – co-sponsored by the Warrant Committee and the Belmont League of Women Voter at the Chenery Middle School – were seeking more information on the financial pros and cons of remaining or leaving the district, Belmont’s School Superintendent John Phelan has begun cobbling together plans to use the three-year “window of time” where Belmont students are guaranteed a place at Minuteman to “research, review and analyze” options so by the second year in 2018, the town can prepare for the cost and logistics of setting the plans in motion.

According to Phelan, the “pathways” provide the town steps to satisfy the state requirement, known as Chapter 74, of providing approved vocational technical education. 

The first, and most straightforward, is the “Minuteman” pathway in which Belmont continues to send students to the Lexington-based school as pupils from non-member communities.

During the three years leading up to the opening of the new Minuteman building in 2020, Belmont would “closely monitor” the number of non-member students and any changes in state law so that it can ensure students aren’t squeezed out of the school if it reaches capacity.

The second avenue is the “Alternative” path, where Belmont would reach out to five nearby school districts – Waltham, Newton (Newton North), Cambridge, Medford, and Somerville – that proved state-approved vocational classes to inquire whether they are willing to take in Belmont students. 

Phelan told the meeting Monday the districts have been contacted and while only Cambridge and Medford “are in the business of taking in students,” the other three said they are open to talking about a partnership with Belmont.

Phelan said he would hold talks with the towns and present the School Committee with a “program of studies” by May 2017. A task force would be created to analyze the program options and how they relate to the classes Minuteman provide. 

By March 2018, more than two years before the new Minuteman school is scheduled to open, Belmont’s School Committee would meet with the Board of Selectmen to decide which of the pathways would address the needs of 8th graders who would option to a vocational program. 

Final agreements would be signed between Belmont and the nearby schools by the 2018/2019 school year; guidance staff would prepare students for a change and final implementation of the alternative pathway would take place in September 2020.

When asked his “central thought” of staying with Minuteman as part of the two pathways, Phelan said most people would rather be part of a regional school.

“We have a long relationship” with Minuteman, said Phelan. But since past votes – including two this year – have shown a strong preference in town to leave the district, “it’s our job” to find vocational classes and put together a “range of offerings … and provide a “quality menu” for students if the vote to leave the district is approved.

But several Town Meeting members agreed with Edward Bouquillon, Minuteman’s superintendent, who questioned whether just providing classes in a relative subject is the equivalent of Minuteman’s comprehensive educational approach.

“Minuteman and other schools are different,” said Bouquillon, saying that students in Lexington spend 630 hours exploring careers by spending time in all subjects while in Somerville the time is limited to 165 hours. And while Medford and Cambridge students are taught by licensed professionals for a bit over 1,000 hours, Minuteman students are instructed for 2,205 hours.

“There are distinct differences that should be considered before the vote rather than after,” he said.

For the bulk of the meeting, newly-appointed Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein walked the audience of Town Meeting members through the article’s highlights noting it will take a 2/3 majority vote of Town Meeting to approve the withdrawal.

A “yes” vote will change the status of the town to a non-member community which will relieve Belmont of the debt building a new $145 million building set to open in September 2020. With state subsidies, the debt to member towns will be $100 million. The new facility will have room for 628 students.

Epstein said even if the town votes to leave the district, Belmont can still send new students to Minuteman until the school opens, after which Belmont pupils can attend if there is space.

Turning to finances, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this summer allowed Minuteman to assess a capital charge of $9,500 per student to member town and non-member communities such as Belmont which does not have any vocational training in the district.

But Epstein said it remains uncertain if Minuteman will implement the add-on cost since it retains the ability to “make deals” to attract and retain students by reducing the assessment.

“That’s just conjecture but take it for what it’s worth,” said Epstein.

Epstein crunched the numbers on the cost of staying or leaving. In the next three years after the vote, a “yes” to remain would result in the town an additional $232,000 in debt service if the current level of students remains constant while withdrawing would keep charges at their current amounts. 

Once the school opens, the yearly cost – tuition, capital charge, transportation and Special Education – per Belmont student reaches approximately $33,000. Multiply that by 29 students now enrolled and Belmont’s tab will be $957,000. 

Using Epstein’s calculations, by remaining in the district, Belmont would be obligated to pay the remaining operating and capital expenses after payments by non-members. Epstein said the cost per student annually would be in a range of $42,000 to nearly $50,000. Those charges would add between $311,000 to $436,000 to the town’s bottom line, requiring the town to seek an override or find a source of funds in the budget to pay for it, said Selectman Mark Paolillio to those in attendance. 

Epstein said after analyzing data and enrollment projections from the Minuteman administration and those advocating for withdrawal, the Warrant Committee believes there will be a significant cost gap between a student coming from member and non-member towns, even if the Minuteman school is fully enrolled. 

While the Minuteman administration is confident it can boost enrollment from the current 576 to 628 – most newly built schools experience a rush of students and vocational education is increasing in popularity – the new high school will need to attract a much greater percentage of higher paying member town students than it does today, a number Epstein isn’t quite ready to accept.

After the meeting, the Warrant Committee voted 11 to 2 for leaving the district.

Town’s Financial ‘Watchdog’ Follows Selectmen Recommending ‘No’ On Minuteman

Photo: The interior of the new Minuteman Tech High School.

In a vote that was not unexpected, the town’s Warrant Committee voted Wednesday, April 27, to recommend next week’s Town Meeting rejects a $144 million funding plan for a new building to house the Minuteman Career and Technical High School.

The 8 to 6 vote came two days after the Belmont Board of Selectmen voted Monday, April 25, unanimously to recommend “unfavorable action” on the financing program that would have the 10 communities that now represent a newly reconstituted Minuteman school district – which Belmont Town Meeting Members overwhelmingly approved in February at a Special Town Meeting – picking up about $100 million in expenses as the state will reimburse $45 million in costs. 

Under the financing plan, each of the ten district communities Town Meetings must approve the building project. So far, most of the smaller towns such as Acton, Stowe and Boxborough have voted in favor of the plan. In an important decision just days before the two Belmont votes, Arlington’s financial committee which has the same role as Belmont’s Warrant Committee, recommended a “yes” vote to Arlington’s Town Meeting which convenes in mid-May.

As with the selectmen’s vote the previous night, a majority of the committee expressed that the building, designed to house 630 students, is too large for the ten member communities in the Minuteman School District who send about 340 high schoolers to the Lexington campus.

Belmont currently sends 26 students to the school, which is about the average number over the past decade. 

In addition, those opposing the plan contend there is no assurance other than recent favorable comments from officials from Everett and Watertown – two communities outside the district that pays a higher tuition per pupil to send them to Minuteman – that any of the out-of-district cities and towns that send students to Minuteman are willing to join the district and take on a sizable chunk of the capital expense of a new school, or are prepared to back a $8,400 per student surcharge the district is seeking to help defer the cost of the building. 

Finally, even if others would step up to the plate to subsidize the cost, Belmont would be saddled with an annual payment over 20 years of between $372,000 and $500,000 of its share of the construction costs. 

“We simply don’t have the money. It would require us to cut [town and school] programs to find the funds,” said Paolillo, saying the town would need to request a debt exclusion to pay for the building around the same time the town will approach residents seeking a possible $100 million debt exclusion for the renovation and new construction at Belmont High School.  

“We really have no other options,” said Paolillo, who believes a no vote – which will scuttle the plan – will require the Minuteman district to come up with a Plan B, which the district members can take a new look at the issues facing the school. 

Pleading the case for a new school building, Minuteman Superintendent Ed Bouquillon reiterated the hope that a new school building, sized to allow for the teaching a wide range of trades and areas of engineering studies in addition to greater interest nationwide among high school aged student in learning technical subjects.

Bouquillon also noted that a school built for 435 student – the smallest that the state will reimburse – would cost $120 million. While admitting that the $24 million difference “is significant,” it should be seen as an “incremental cost” when you understand the upside of having a school with greater potential of serving a wider population with a significant number of programs.

Supporters on the committee, including newly installed chair Roy Epstein, said despite the cost, “it was better off going forward than stopping and starting over” without the assurance that the new plan would be better for Belmont and its students.

But the majority decided a “rethink on this whole district” is needed, said committee member Bob McLaughlin.

Financial Watchdog Committee OK With Funding for New HS Design, Modulars

Photo: Belmont Superintendent John Phelan at the Warrant Committee.

The Warrant Committee unanimously supported proposed funding sources for two outstanding school capital needs: the purchase of six modular classrooms to be located at the Chenery Middle School and the hiring of a project manager and funding for a feasibility study and schematic designs for the renovated/new high school.

The vote by the committee, which is the financial “watchdog” for the Belmont Town Meeting, came after short presentations by school and town officials at the Chenery Middle School Wednesday night, April 13.

What makes the funding approach different from the traditional method of issuing bonds to raise the funds, the town is arranging to pay for these needs via in-town financing.

The $1.4 million proposed by the School District for six modular classrooms to be located on the Chenery Middle School tennis courts will come from the town’s “free cash” account; the $1.75 million to pay for creating plans and hiring a property manager for the new Belmont High School project will come from the proceeds of the sale of town-owned property off Woodfall Road to a luxury residential developer.

The new classrooms – which will be ready for the start of the upcoming school year in September – are needed as the district grapples with continued overcrowding as enrollment levels continue to skyrocket, with a projected 400 additional students entering the system from Oct. 2015 to Oct. 2019.

“And we have a very real need at the Middle School” when it comes to finding space to use for teaching, said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan, pointing out that classes are being taught in areas previously used as offices and storage rooms.

The modular classroom will be purchased rather than leased after an analysis conducted by the town’s Facilities Department found it is cost beneficial to own the pre-hab structures if held for more than three years, according to Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan.

According to the superintendent, “we will be in need of this space for some time,” upwards to a decade, said Phelan.

“If I could find the money and the space, I would ask for six more classrooms,” he said.

The direct transfer of the $1.75 million from the sale of the Woodfall Road property to the newly created Belmont High School Building Committee “just made sense” as the sale was a “one-time funds from the sale of a capital asset,” said Sami Baghdady, chair of the Board of Selectmen and the board’s representative on the committee

These funds will pay for the initial stages of the renovation/new construction of the high school including feasibility and design studies that are required to be financed within 220 days after the project is approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority in January.

While there are other financial avenues the town could have traveled to pay for the project – free cash and a special account known as the Kendell Fund which has more than $3.3 million – a discussion among town leaders and the Treasurer’s office that the Kendell fund should preserve to finance studies of future capital projects including a Police Station, DPW Yard, and town library.

While there will be a need for additional funds down the road, the Woodfall Road money should be “enough funds to get the Belmont High Building Committee through the initial feasibility phase.”

Special Town Meeting Warrant Briefing at the Beech Tonight

The Belmont League of Women Voters and the Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring a warrant briefing tonight, Thursday, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting member as well as the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads about the single article on the warrant – concerning the funding for the 2.8 million Belmont Center Reconstruction project – prior to Special Town Meeting to be held on Monday, Nov. 17 at the Chenery Middle School.

Raffi Manjikian, vice-chair of the Warrant Committee, will preside.

Housing Trust’s CPA Affordable Housing Plan Gets Mixed Results

For the majority of articles being brought before the Belmont Town Meeting tonight, Monday, May 5, the Warrant Committee and the Board of Selectmen are of one mind; they will be nodding in sync approvingly with nearly all the proposals facing the approximate 300 representatives.

But there is one article where the two groups have decided to take diverging paths on the Community Preservation Committee’s $375,000 grant to the Belmont Housing Trust’s first-time homebuyer’s proposal.

The plan will help three homebuyers –  it would target those making less than 80 percent of the area median household income which is approximately $92,000 – to lower their mortgages by approximately $125,000 each to make them affordable. In return, the three units will remain affordable “in perpetuity” due to a deed restriction that limits the amount the homeowner can receive in a resale.

“There are six units of this same housing in Belmont, on Oakley and B Street,” noted Gloria Leipzig, the Housing Trust’s vice chair at a Warrant Briefing meeting in April.

While the Warrant Committee – which is the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog – voted overwhelmingly against the plan by 10-3 in April, the Belmont Board of Selectmen, in a two to one vote, will be supporting the proposal when it comes before the Town Meeting likely at Monday’s first night.

The disagreement between backers of the Housing Trust’s initiative and those opposed is not based on support of affordable housing as all members believe that Belmont should push to increase the supply of this housing – Belmont has about 300 units or 3.8 percent of the total housing stock.

Rather it’s the approach the Housing Trust hopes to use to increase affordable housing that has come under fire. According to several Warrant Committee members and Selectman Sami Baghdady, using nearly $400,000 to move a limited number of people into moderate-rate housing is simply not cost effective.

With Belmont nearly 600 units away from reach the state’s goal of 10 percent affordability in housing (which will also prohibit developers from using the Chapter 40B law allowing developers of affordable housing to override most town zoning bylaws and other requirements), the money would better be spent as part of a larger expenditure to build a great number of units or on other causes. 

“[The Community Preservation Act] is all tax money and it shouldn’t be used as a slush fund” for ineffective programs, said Baghdady at a May 1 Selectmen’s meeting.

Supporters of the CPA request contend that any increase in housing is better than staying pat on this societal problem.

“Our goal is to increase the number of affordable housing in Belmont, just to show the state we are trying to meet its requirements,” said Leipzig. 

For Selectman Mark Paolillo, the realization that the town may “never” meet the 10 percent goal doesn’t mean that the town should seek the perfect at the expense of doing nothing.

“It’s not perfect but I support the concept,” said Paolillo.

“We need to show our commitment to affordability and this is a fairly easy way to do it,” said Selectmen’s chair Andy Rojas.