Photo: Andrea Prestwich has been the target of some resident’s claims that she leads a committee that doesn’t act on parent’s ideas and complaints
During a recent December Zoom meeting hosted by the Warrant Committee on making difficult budget choices in the coming year, a resident – whose question was read out – asked if the April 2021 Proposition 2 1/2 override request could be “split” into two votes on a separate school and town budgets. The resident explained their reasoning for breaking up the override (known as a menu option) because “there has been a loss of confidence in the current school system.”
The underlying rational behind the request – which doesn’t appear likely as the Select Board is supportive of a All-Town budget – is brutally simple: They and others are prepared to reprimand the leadership of the school committee and district by voting down a critical infuse of cash.
Then a familiar voice spoke up.
“I would like to defend the school’s stewardship at this point,” said Andrea Prestwich, chair of the Belmont School Committee. Having spent her entire nine month tenure leading the committee under the whirlwind of COVID-19, the mother of two Belmont High students was prepared to do what the committee and district had rarely done since the spring – a full-throated justification of the elected board’s
“I think it is certainly unfair to say that the schools have not managed the school budget,” said Prestwich, pointing to continued successes in providing excellent education (a pair of nationally recognized “Blue Ribbon Schools) while initiating a new Middle and High school all the while doing so with funding level that is far below state and peer schools.
“My first reaction to the idea of splitting is that we are all in this together. We shouldn’t be talking about the town and the schools and trying to pick the fire department or the library against the schools. You know we’re one town,” she said.
Prestwich’s bulwark defense of the schools come as parents, residents and have called Prestwich out for her and the committee’s esquivalience of schools and the pupils, one which has brought a level of displeasure rarely seen in the past two decades.
Winn Brook resident Prestwich, an astrophysicist by trade (BA physics, Queen Mary College, London; PhD in Astrophysics at Imperial College London) is preparing for the second half of the school term with a view of look forward rather than reexamine the past.
The interview was done over email and has been edited for length.
Since March 2020, the School Committee and the district haven’t addressed the issues presented by your growing number of critics. Why haven’t you or the committee countered this criticism? Is there a proper time and venue to highlight the School Committee’s policies and actions?
Every member of the School Committee is deeply aware of the criticism and varying viewpoints. Our community doesn’t speak with one voice. As a school committee we try to reach out by responding to emails, holding office hours, and listening to comments at meetings. We’ve also been struggling with the sheer volume of public input–and desire for more public input. A lot of public discussion occurs on social media. As school committee members we seldom engage on social media because of concerns over open meeting law. Overall, I don’t think we’ve done a stellar job in communicating our decisions and we are looking for ways to improve.
The primary complaint of School Committee critics is what they call the mismanagement of the district, from “refusing” to collaborate with parents on pressing issues – taking control of the air filtration project and aggressive push towards hybrid and full in-school learning – and a lack of transparency. How do you and the committee answer these specific charges?
One core issue here is that a group of parents disagree with our decision to have a phased opening starting in remote. They prioritized in person learning. We had many good reasons for choosing a phased approach – adopted by other districts – and in retrospect I personally feel that this was a good decision. COVID-19 is spread through aerosol transmission, and adequate ventilation is key. Families and teachers need to know that “their” classroom is safe. They need to know how many air purifiers they need, and when it is safe to close windows. This took time. I respectfully disagree with our critics who feel we should have opened in hybrid. That said, we also understand how frustrating the phased decision was to a section of our community, and in response we accelerated the phases as much as we could. After we made the decision to accelerate the hybrid, we were inundated with emails from folk in the opposite camp: they supported the phased approach and were unhappy with moving too fast. Our community is divided on the issue of hybrid, but this is not unique to Belmont. School committees are under fire across the Commonwealth. For example, see the recent Slate article highlighting division in Brookline.
It’s interesting that there is a perception that we “refused” to collaborate with parent groups. We are very grateful for the guidance we received from the air filter group – following their suggestion we purchased hundreds of air purifiers. We are following up on the testing initiative, although funding and logistics are challenging. Despite this, parents feel that they have not been listened to or been a part of the decision making process. I get this. It was a fundamental mistake not to have involved parents in plans for phasing and hybrid. They should have been involved from the start. We are moving things in the right direction by having parents, educators and students involved in groups tasked with improving the hybrids. The high school working group was very successful.
On the issue of transparency: if you follow our School Committee meetings, you know that we’re a collaborative group. Consistent with the open meeting law, we discuss these issues in open session, with the exception of those subject to collective bargaining that are appropriately addressed in executive session. There is no hidden agenda. In that sense, our decisions are completely transparent. I think the accusation of “lack of transparency” boils down to “why can’t you give me an immediate answer to my simple question?” There is often a real tension between a desire to answer a question openly and fully and our obligation not to discuss the details of issues that are subject to collective bargaining with the teachers union [the Belmont Education Association]. The move to pandemic operations has required completely re-negotiating working conditions with our educators: not just in Belmont but in all public school districts in Massachusetts. The Memorandum of Agreement covers working hours, the school year, air exchange standards in classrooms, the ability of staff to take leave of absence, sick time, professional development, virtual participation, snow days, acceptable temperatures in the classroom, and many other details. We are legally obligated to negotiate these changes according to state labor law. We always attempt to be as open and transparent as possible, but certain details cannot be discussed publicly until we’ve reached final agreement on matters being negotiated.
[In early December] and a month previous, the committee and the district admitted some decisions were “not perfect” and you and Belmont Superintendent John Phelan expressed regret for those missteps. While your critics continue to point to perceived faulty governance, what would you tell the public about what the committee has been effective/successful in achieving during the pandemic?
On the School Committee we are humbled by our responsibilities. We are coping with something no school district has had to deal with since 1918; a dangerous pandemic. We’re deeply aware of how our decisions affect children and families in Belmont. We’ve made some unfortunate missteps in communication and not involving parents in decision making. That said, I feel like we’ve had some important successes.
One, our buildings are very safe. The BALA report was very late, but extremely thorough. We know the air exchange in each classroom. We know which classrooms need a purifier and/or a open windows to be safe. We know which rooms need extra purifiers if we want to close windows to keep the rooms from getting too cold. Our families and teachers can be sure our buildings are “pandemic ready.” Because we confident in our buildings, we can keep schools open even though COVID-19 cases are increasing in Belmont and surrounding towns.
Second, we were able to eliminate full-day kindergarten fees for the 2020-21 school year. We hope this will be a little help to families who are struggling in a pandemic economy. In future years, all kindergarten students will count as full time for the purposes of calculating state aide, resulting in an increase in Chapter 70 funding for Belmont.
In addition, our educators developed excellent remote learning strategies over the summer.
Although we have a long way to go to go, we have taken several positive steps to improve communication. We have instituted School Committee Office hours, and we now have a Google form where people can submit questions and comments to the committee prior to a meeting. I try to answer most questions in public, or read out the comments
A resident, Jacob Scott, has created an online “recall petition” on the Facebook page “Time to put the Kids First in Belmont Ma” targeting you and possibly the entire school committee. Scott has not given a reason for the recall but others comment about “lack of leadership and poor management,” being “rude” and being dismissive. Why do you think you are being the point person for a group’s ire? Has it affected how you approach the position?
I completely understand the level of frustration in the community with our schools. Not one of us on the School Committee is happy with the current situation. We would all like for school in Belmont to be back to normal. As School Committee chair, I’m the natural target for the frustration. Nobody likes being told, “I’m sorry, your three minutes are up, but we have to move on because we have a four hour meeting.”
On the flip side, I’ve received many emails and cards of support. Flowers, cookies and chocolates have all been left on our doorstep. People stop me in the streets to say thank you. Other School Committee members have had similar experiences. We all appreciate these kind gestures, and endeavor to learn from the criticism.
What is the one misconception promoted by critics that you and the school committee would like to correct?
The misconception that somehow Belmont has not followed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) guidelines or fails to meet minimum DESE expectations. I’m sorry to say that this misconception has been fueled by DESE actions.
Belmont submitted plans for a phased return in August. Several other districts also submitted phased plans. The plan had all the necessary components: remote and a hybrid that also allowed for remote-only access. It was accepted by DESE without comment. There was no requirement for hybrid to start by a particular date. In mid-September, 16 districts received letters asking why hybrid learning had not started. It gave the impression that Belmont was not meeting state requirements, when no such requirements were in place. That’s not moving the goal posts, it’s pulling new posts out of thin air. Note that I do not object to setting new goals as circumstances change. I object to the post-facto characterization of the Belmont plan as apparently inadequate, which inflamed an already polarized community.
Another example was the roll out of the new DESE metrics. The announcement talked about “full in-person learning” as the goal unless the community is “red” according to infections per 100,000 people and positivity rate. Overall, these changes are sensible. There is now ample evidence that transmission is rare in schools with proper mitigations in place. However, the press conference failed to make the point that social distancing must be maintained. Belmont’s schools are too crowded to allow full in-person learning. Nevertheless, we received emails asking why we could not follow DESE guidelines and return to full in person learning.
I hope Gov. Charlie Baker’s future actions reflect a more nuanced understanding of individual districts and the often divisive dialogue in otherwise close-knit communities.
With COVID, labor unions, the state’s education and health departments playing large roles this school year, has the committee been forced to answer to too many masters to be effective in its role leading the district?
There is some truth to this statement. We need to collaborate with our colleagues in the BEA, Belmont’s Health Department and be mindful of the guidance from DESE, the State Health Department, the CDC, etc. As I said previously, DESE has made this process more painful than was necessary.
School funding and enrollment is another major factor. Belmont schools are funded significantly below the state average on a per student basis and the enrollment has grown significantly over the past few years, including a surge in English Language Learners and students with special needs. Operating in a pandemic – with remote, hybrid and remote only students – requires significantly more staffing than regular operations, and works best with smaller classes. It also requires a lot of administrative legwork. Belmont resources have been stretched to a breaking point.
With the school year nearing halfway, will the school committee and the district maintain the same policies the committee and superintendent agreed to in August or could there be changes inspired by the parent groups’ advocacy?
The phased policy adopted in August was very controversial but all schools are now in hybrid so that policy has now played out. Moving forward, we will continue to involve our parent community in important decisions including how and when to move to full in-person learning.
Will the release of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dampen some of the criticism as parents see a light at the end of the tunnel – possible late spring return to in-class learning and a return to normal in the 2021-2022 school year?
I do think there is light at the end of the tunnel. Based on everything that we know now, there is the prospect for widespread vaccination to be accomplished by this summer. And there’s a good chance that school will return to normal — or something that looks much more normal — for the next school year.