Opinion: Support Your Local Farmers And Gardeners!

Photo: Composting (credit: Black Earth Compost)

By Megan Tan

Support your Local Farmers and Gardeners!

By the title of this opinion piece, you may be expecting me to tell you to support your local farmers by going to farmers markets in the greater Boston area. While that is something I love to suggest to my friends and family, I want to talk about a different way you may be able to support your local farmers. I want to encourage you and your family to start composting.

You may already be familiar with composting, considering many residents in Belmont do so already. However, it is also possible you are not so familiar with it, which is okay because we all must start somewhere. I also would love to share some information about it.

Composting is the process in which organic material and food scraps are separated from the trash that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Once separated, the food scraps decompose and in a matter of a few weeks to a year, it becomes a natural nutrient-dense fertilizer.

One can process compost right in their backyard; however, this method requires some attention which not every Belmont resident is able to provide. Recognizing this obstacle, Belmont has partnered with Black Earth Compost which is a company that is dedicated to processing your food scraps into compost. This partnership has resulted in the installment of a weekly curbside compost pickup for residents that sign up for the service.

To start composting yourself, all you would have to do is pay a small and worthwhile fee for the weekly pickups, a compost bin, and some compostable liners in addition to signing up. Once you have done that, you are ready to start composting. After eating a meal or snack, simply separate the compostable items into your compost bin and put the rest in the trash. Some of the many things that are compostable are fruit and vegetable scraps, animal bones and shells, dairy products, eggshells, paper, and much more.

To make this easier for you, Black Earth has an extensive guide on their website that shares items that are and aren’t compostable which is shown below:

The partnership between Black Earth Compost and Belmont formed almost two years ago, and since then, nearly 1,000 Belmont residents and counting have signed up. Belmont so far is responsible for diverting 472 tons of food waste from landfills into compost production. The compost created by Black Earth is eventually purchased and utilized by farmers and gardeners to help grow sustainable and nutritious fruits and vegetables that we can then buy to feed ourselves and our families. And of course, after eating them, we can put our food scraps back into our compost bins, and the cycle starts all over again.

Compost is a wonderful way for us to reduce our waste and reuse the nutrients we would otherwise throw away. In fact, approximately 40 percent of what goes to a landfill from our trash is compostable. By composting, you would be able to personally divert a large portion of your waste and instead have it be used happily by farmers for their crop cultivation.

Approximately a year ago, I signed my house up for weekly curbside pick-ups from Black Earth Composting. Since then, my family has diverted a total of 418 pounds of food waste to compost which has been used to plant 54 seedlings of various fruit and vegetable plants. Keep in mind my brother and I have been out of the house for most of the year at school, so these numbers are on the lower side.

Another cool thing about composting is that the more people who do it, the less expensive it gets. It is currently $8.99 a month to be subscribed to the weekly pickups but is subject to decrease as more Belmont residents sign up. If f you’re interested in learning more about composting or wanting to sign up with Black Earth Compost, click the link here.

Megan Tan is a 2019 graduate of Belmont high and is a sophomore at Bowdoin College majoring in Environmental Studies and Anthropology.

Opinion: Belmont High Needs A More Comprehensive Approach To Teaching Sex-Ed

Photo: Belmont High School

By Molly Hamilton

I attended Belmont Public Schools from Kindergarten until I graduated from Belmont High in 2019. Overall my experience within the Belmont school system was positive and effectively prepared me for college and many other aspects of post-graduation life.

However, there was one area where the curriculum fell short: sex education. In my four years at Belmont High, the only topics related to sex education that we covered were basic anatomy, STIs, pregnancy and abstinence. There was a brief discussion about contraception that centered around an oft-repeated phrase along the lines of, “abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy”.

While this statement may be true, a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicated that approximately 55 percent of teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18. Why, when over half of teens are sexually active by the time they graduate high school, are we not providing a more comprehensive, realistic, and applicable sex education curriculum?

There are three main arguments for a more comprehensive sex education curriculum: sex-ed curriculum would help reduce the stigma around STIs and encourage more teens to get tested, and, finally, most sex-ed curricula do not cover vaginal health and thus set young women up to be misinformed about their own bodies.

Massachusetts’ current laws require an abstinence-focused approach to sex education in public schools (SIECUS) which was entirely in line with what I experienced in high school. While it is true that abstaining from sex is the only completely effective way to prevent pregnancy, I believe that telling young people to avoid a natural human behavior in order to avoid the risks that come with it is foolish and ineffective. Teens are no strangers to risk, and counting on them to avoid risky behaviors entirely is doomed to fail. Your teens years are inherently one of the most emotionally tumultuous, mistake-prone periods of your life, and it’s dangerous to forget that.

Why, when over half of teens are sexually active by the time they graduate high school, are we not providing a more comprehensive, realistic, and applicable sex education curriculum?

Furthermore, a 2017 study found that abstinence-focused sex-ed curricula “have little demonstrated efficacy in helping adolescents to delay intercourse.” Similarly, a study at the University of Washington concluded that, compared to teens who received no sex education, those who were taught an abstinence-focused curriculum were 30 percent less likely to experience unwanted pregnancy while those were taught a more comprehensive curriculum were 60 percent less likely. That alone proves that abstinence-focused sex-ed is not only ineffective at preventing pregnancy, but that a revised curriculum that covers more contraceptive options and risk-reducing behaviors could be significantly more effective. If it’s the aim of Belmont High to reduce teen pregnancy rates, then a comprehensive curriculum is the best way to accomplish that.

However, pregnancy is not the only risk factor when it comes to sexual activity. STIs are just as, if not more, prevalent. While I was taught the signs and symptoms of the most common STIs in high school, there was little information about how those STIs are treated. In health classes, the education we received about STIs felt more like a fear-mongering tactic than an actual informational session. We were required to do extensive research on the physical effects of STIs, the only facet of the issue that was thoroughly discussed.

I believe that the way STIs are discussed in health classes is only adding to the stigma around seeking treatment and getting tested. Young people are at a higher risk for contracting STIs, and lessening the stigma around them could lead to more teens getting tested. Regular STI testing is an important part of all around physical health and should be treated with the same neutrality as visiting a general practitioner, dentist, or optometrist.

Sexual health should not be presented as a shameful, scary topic, but should be presented as a neutral collection of facts and information. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Young people ages 15 to 24 represent 25 percent of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new STIs, or about 10 million new cases a year.” Such a startling statistic should be more than enough evidence to indicate that more comprehensive sex education curricula is not just an issue for teens and their parents, but a wide-reaching public health issue that we should all have a stake in.

While pregnancy and STIs are undoubtedly the main concerns surrounding adolescent sexual activity, there are many other topics under the umbrella of sexual health that should be covered. In school I was never taught about UTIs, yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or any other vaginal health concerns. While they may not carry the same frightening connotation as STIs, all of those conditions can lead to severe complications if left untreated. For example, an untreated UTI can lead to a life-threatening kidney infection and untreated bacterial vaginosis can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, a condition which increases a woman’s infertility risk. Teen girls are not taught the early warning signs of these conditions, how to prevent them, or the urgency with which they need to be treated. Adding such topics to the curriculum would also help combat the strong cultural stigma around vaginal health, possibly helping female students feel more comfortable seeking treatment. Most women will experience one or more of these issues in their lifetime, and we’re doing them a disservice by completely omitting gynecological issues from sex education curricula.

While the Belmont Public school system does an excellent job preparing students for life after graduation, this issue represents a significant hole in its high school curriculum. Many young people, especially young women, do not receive educational information about sex, gender, and their own bodies outside of school.

As an educational institution meant to serve and uplift young adults, Belmont High School should revise their sex education curriculum to include a broader range of topics in a less abstinence-focused manner. The disadvantages of abstinence-focused sex-ed are backed by numerous studies, and the advantages of a more comprehensive curriculum are innumerable.

This is not just an issue on an individual level, but a serious public health concern that, if remedied, would benefit the entire community.

Hamilton is a 2019 graduate from Belmont High School and is currently attending college

Opinion: My Support For Bill To Allow Drivers’ Licenses To Residents Without Lawful Immigrant Status

Photo: Sample of a Massachusetts commercial drivers’ license. (Credit: mass.gov/rmv)

By Will Brownsberger

Current Massachusetts law provides that “no [driver’s] license of any type may be issued to any person who does not have lawful presence in the United States.

A bill currently before the senate would change that sentence to read: “An applicant for a [driver’s] license … who does not provide proof of lawful presence, … , shall be eligible … if the applicant meets all other qualifications for licensure and provides satisfactory proof to the registrar of their identity, date of birth and Massachusetts residency.”

In other words, the bill would give licenses to people who cannot prove lawful presence in the United States, provided they can prove their residence and identity and pass the same tests that everyone else has to pass.

I plan to support the bill.

My fundamental view about immigration policy is that it is up to the federal government. It is not the concern of state and local government. However, one of the top concerns of state and local government is to assure that all drivers know the rules of the road and how to operate a vehicle safely. It is often necessary to drive and we are all safer if more of the people on our roads have the required training and insurance.

Some argue that to discourage illegal immigration, we should make life in Massachusetts as inconvenient and uncomfortable as possible for people without lawful immigrant status. I do not agree with that approach. We hurt ourselves when we isolate people in our midst. We benefit from immigrant labor in many occupations and we should treat all workers as well as we can.

Others express the valid concern that a driver’s license is an identification card and we do not want to facilitate the creation of false credentials. The bill gives this concern careful attention in two different ways. 

First, the bill does not allow persons who cannot prove lawful presence to get a “Real-ID” which would get them into federal buildings and on to planes. Instead, they will get a card that is valid as a license to drive but is not valid for federal identification.

Second, applicants for a license who do not possess United States identity credentials like a U.S. passport will have to provide similarly rigorous foreign credentials — a foreign passport or an identity card issued by their consulate. In addition, they will have to provide a corroborating document like a license from another state or a birth certificate. At least one of the proferred documents must be a photo ID and at least one must include birth date.

Some have expressed the concern that since one can register to vote through the drivers license application process, the new law would allow non-citizens to vote. Again, the law specifically speaks to this, requiring the Registry of Motor Vehicles to “establish procedures … to ensure that an applicant for a Massachusetts license … who does not provide proof of lawful presence shall not be automatically registered to vote.” The law would not take effect for a year, allowing time to assure that these procedures are in place.

While the new law cements the requirement of procedures to protect the voter rolls, procedures are already in place according to the Secretary of State. He states on his website that “The RMV … collect[s] information about lawful presence in the United States and they will not submit names to local election officials of any persons they have determined are not U.S. citizens.” This is not a new concern. Currently many people who are not citizens but are lawfully present in the United States have drivers licenses: for example, a green card holder can get a license.

Similar legislation has been passed in 16 other states. The bill has the support of many law enforcement officers, including the Sheriffs of Middlesex County and Suffolk County, and the police chiefs of Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown. 

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has already voted for this bill by 120-36. I expect the Senate to take it up and I hope we are able to give it a similar strong endorsement and send it to the Governor’s desk.

Belmont resident Will Brownsberger is a Massachusetts state senator representing the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District that includes Belmont.

Opinion: Don’t Believe The Pessimism; Belmont’s Best Days Are Ahead

Photo: “Attend meetings of local committees and make your voice heard at them.”

By Paul Roberts

Imagine a Belmont in which foreign language instruction and instrumental music commence in kindergarten; courses on robotics and AI pepper the high school curriculum; and students have rich, in-district choices for technical and vocational education. 

Imagine a Belmont that no longer obliges families to pay hundreds of dollars each year in fees for their children to ride the bus, participate in athletics or join a school club. 

Imagine a Belmont that gives aging residents more options for staying in their homes and extends a helping hand in dealing with problems related to transportation, nutrition, and loneliness. 

Imagine a Belmont in which children, seniors and professionals frequent a well equipped and modern library with liberal operating hours to study, work and learn.

Imagine a Belmont in which we use our smartphones to report a pothole or heaved sidewalk, get a text message that lets us know when the DPW has scheduled a fix and then another to confirm the work is done. 

Imagine a town with bustling recreational facilities: a renovated skating rink; a bike and skate park for our kids and a dedicated youth center where kids can hang out, get tutored and socialize after school. 

Imagine a town built to meet the needs of modern families and professionals, not those of 50 years ago – a town in which residents can move about town by foot, bike, or car safely using dedicated routes that prevent injuries and deaths. 

This is Belmont’s bright future and it’s well within our grasp. 

This vision of our Town of Homes may sound strange to you. If you’re a regular reader of local media opinion pages, you have been treated in recent months to an entirely different view of our town: one far more cynical and pessimistic about our shared future. 

According to this view: Belmont’s elected leaders are inept; our town professionals are incompetent; our school officials are liars and cheats; our library, roads and recreational facilities are beyond our ability to repair. Belmont’s best days are behind it, by this account. Our only recourse is to retreat: deny an unworthy government the resources it needs, make do with less and shrink from the challenges of the future. 

A quick review of the record says otherwise. In the last decade Belmont has accomplished quite a bit. We’ve re-paved dozens of roads and sidewalks; renovated our playgrounds and parks; updated and expanded our historic town pool and our police station. Following a successful Proposition 2 ½ override in 2015, Belmont’s Public Schools reduced class sizes and hired new teachers across grade levels. Last, but certainly not least, we recently completed the first stage of a brand new 7-12 school on time and on budget. Naysayers and doomsayers aside: Belmont gets things done.

Of course, neither of these visions of Belmont’s future – one optimistic, the other dire – are inevitable. Both require a commitment on the part of Belmont residents and our leaders to realize. 

I would argue that no community ever shrunk its way to greatness. To realize a brighter future, we need to embrace a vision for what our town can be, and do the yeoman’s work to make that vision reality. This almost certainly will require investment: more resources, not fewer. But Belmont also needs to make our government more efficient and accountable. We need to make better use of technology to reduce inefficiency and increase agility and transparency. We need to double down on our commitment to excellent public education and a high quality of life by pursuing policies and investments that make those commitments more than just words. 

What can you do? Start by paying attention to what’s going on. Attend meetings of local committees and make your voice heard at them. Town elections are in April, 2022. Listen for candidates’ vision for our community. Is it one in which Belmont improves the quality of life for its residents? Or do you hear a litany of complaints with cuts to services as the cure-all? Finally, don’t be afraid to dream big for our town, and then to work hard to make those dreams a reality. Belmont needs you now, more than ever. 

Paul Roberts is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 8 and Chair of the Town’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (ITAC)

School Committee Chair Responds To Rash Of Hate Incidents At Belmont Schools

Photo: Racial, homophobic and anti-Semitic incidents have occurred in Belmont schools in the past three years.

In October, there were multiple reports of racist, homophobic, and antisemitic hate speech scrawled on the walls of Chenery Middle School and racist slurs posted in the library of Belmont High School. These incidents, and the beliefs that they reflect, are not new to Belmont or any other community, and cannot be interpreted as another troubling outcome of the pandemic. 

I write as an individual School Committee member, Town Meeting member, and parent to condemn these acts. Every time a slur is written or spoken, there are people who feel less welcome in Belmont. We should all be concerned about the impact of recent incidents and what could happen next. I also worry about how to ensure that responses not only help heal and bring us closer together, but also help prevent future incidents.

I urge everyone – especially those with systemic privilege and power – to not stay silent, to denounce injustice when it happens, and to contribute to actions to improve our systems.

Amy Checkoway, Belmont School Committee

I witness the hard work that our leaders, educators, and staff are doing to foster safe and supportive environments for all students. More detailed protocols are being developed to ensure immediate and effective responses. The district is working to add layers of preventative measures to try to stop incidents before they happen.

Achieving a more inclusive and equitable school communitywill not happen overnight. As leaders, we must identify where the system is falling short. One current focus is the external equity audit of the Belmont Public Schools. The audit is identifying issues and challenges that the district – and our students and families – face with the goal of supporting each student to reach his/her/their potential. With the audit findings in hand by early 2022, the district will develop a strategic actionplan that includes concrete steps forward by the spring.

I urge everyone – especially those with systemic privilege and power – to not stay silent, to denounce injustice when it happens, and to contribute to actions to improve our systems. We must be clear that racist, homophobic, and antisemitic actsare unacceptable, that those who threaten others will face consequences for their actions, and that it is our collective responsibility to speak up for one another. We especially owe this to our children, who are watching, listening, and counting on us. I should have made this public statement sooner.

Amy Checkoway

Pequossette Road

Opinion: A View Of Holidays and Freedoms On This 4th Of July

Photo: Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom.

By Will Brownsberger

The recent hate crimes in Belmont, Winthrop, and Brighton, so close to home and so near the Fourth of July, have me thinking about the meaning of our national holidays.

Seven of our eleven federal holidays celebrate our struggles for freedom and justice. Each of our national struggles have occurred in the context of broader international liberation struggles. 

Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday celebrate our declaration of independence from King George III and honor those who fought our revolutionary war to uphold that declaration. Our revolution was just the first of many revolutions to replace the autocratic rule of European monarchs with government by the people.

Our new holiday, Juneteenth, celebrates the final end of slavery in the United States. More than 600,000 died in our Civil War. By comparison, only 25,000 died in our revolutionary war. Almost as many soldiers died in the Civil War as in all our other wars combined. Roughly 10 percent of the men between 18 and 45 died in the Civil War and many more were maimed for life. The union soldiers sacrificed to free four million people from slavery.

It took a horrific convulsion to expunge the stain of slavery that ran so deep in our nation and to enshrine liberty for all in our constitution. It is fitting that we finally have a holiday that specifically celebrates that milestone in our progress. 

Martin Luther King Day celebrates a great leader and those who struggled alongside him to make freedom real for African Americans by dismantling the state and local laws discriminating against them.  

The struggle for universal civil rights and freedoms continues to this day, but it is broader and more complex. It is not just about changing laws. It is about changing the behavior of individuals and institutions who may discriminate against not only African Americans but other minorities and/or women. All nations that are committed in good faith to basic human rights continue to struggle to realize those rights universally for their citizens.

The recent hateful incidents diminish the freedom of all minorities. Whether one is visibly Black, visibly Asian, visibly an orthodox Jew or visibly transgender, one should be able to walk the streets free from the fear of random violence.

Many people who commit hate crimes may suffer from some form of mental illness, but it is hateful ideology that leads them to translate their inner struggles into hateful actions. All of us, whether healthy or unhealthy, act based on the ideas we are exposed to. That is why it is so important that all of us speak out against violence and broadcast our appreciation for diversity.

We celebrate and thank the law enforcement officers who respond when hateful violence unfolds. They, like our soldiers, put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom. On those days, we also honor our public safety personnel.

Labor Day honors public safety personnel, teachers, and other unionized workers, but more broadly honors all those who fought for better wages and working conditions in the international labor movement. It is easy to forget across the distance of years just how low wages often were and how cruel the workplace could be. The labor movement fought and won great victories to create the relative comfort that many of us now enjoy.  As in the civil rights movement, there is more to be done.

Columbus Day has become controversial for good reason. Columbus’ revealed the Americas to Europeans, but he did is so in the service of a monarch bent on acquiring resources for royal aggrandizement. Those who came after him destroyed the great pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas. I support rethinking that holiday to align it better with the consistent values expressed by our other holidays.

The remaining three federal holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day — bring families together to enjoy the freedoms we have been blessed with.

Opinion: Come Together Belmont, Right Now

Photo: The cover of the Beatles album “Abbey Road”

By Mary Lewis

On April 5, Belmont’s elementary school children will have the opportunity to attend school in-person and full-time for the first time since March 12, 2020. Middle and high school students will follow later this spring. On May 3, Belmont Center will resume the outdoor dining it first launched due to COVID last year. And on June 23, the pool will reopen – albeit with some limitations on numbers. These are opportunities for us to come together, hopefully mostly vaccinated, as a community. There’s a lot to look forward to after an excruciatingly difficult year. I can’t wait to reconnect with people I’ve barely seen for months.

Here is what I don’t want to overhear at an outdoor table in the center or poolside: arguments about what sports should be cut from the middle and high schools, whether theater is more important than music or vice versa, and which days the library should cut hours, or why there is trash overflowing at Joey’s, Pequosette, and Grove Street Parks on the weekends. If this happens, it will mean that the override has not passed, and while other towns are busy bouncing back from a horrible year, we will be compounding our public health crisis with a fiscal one that further divides our town.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If we acknowledge that acting now saves taxpayers money. Belmont’s multi-year structural deficit will not magically disappear if we ignore it. In fact, it will just get bigger. And, as welcome as the news is of federal aid for our small businesses, renters, and others facing difficulty meeting housing costs, we must face the fact that regarding the other aid promised to the town, only a very small percentage will be unrestricted or not allocated for COVID-related expenses.   

If you put off painting your house because of sticker shock, you may have to replace rotting wood and paint your house – at much greater cost. We’re in the same situation with our town. Deferring maintenance and routine expenses makes things cost more, not less. Likewise, cutting first responders means paying overtime if those who are left are needed in an emergency. Failing to hire a procurement officer means we spend more, not less, on supplying our schools and town with the things they need to function, whether its road salt or school desks. Let’s not delude ourselves: as counterintuitive as it might seem, deferring a tax increase does not help our most vulnerable residents. It just makes our collective costs snowball, burdening us all more. Like a routine paint job before rot sets in, the override saves money in the long run.

This spring, let’s come together as a community again – finally – at school, in town center, at the pool, in our parks. And let’s come together as a community that assumes responsibility for maintaining and sustaining what we have before it falls apart.

Please join me in voting Yes on Question 1 on April 6.

Opinion: Protect Our Town Employees and Seniors With A ‘Yes’ Vote On The Override

Photo: A vote to pass the override will ensure seniors and town employees are protected

ln his guest column in a local publication dated Feb. 18, “Please Join Me ln Voting ‘Yes,” former Selectman Ralph Jones suggests ways of reducing town expenses including asking town employees to help pay for them. He wrote “reducing compensation through union negotiations would depend on the expiration dates of existing contracts.”

ls it fair or appropriate for Jones, or any elected official or administrator in town including the Select Board or the town administrator, to expect town employees, through a reduction in compensation or benefits, to help pay for the ongoing increases in town expenses?

Residents, administrators and elected officials regularly advocate for new services and facilities but we are reluctant to pay for them and are dismayed when we receive our new real estate tax bills. We, as a town voted, through our town meeting members, for an expensive new high and middle school. Now we have to pay for it.

Regarding additional school services, Jones writes “increasingly, schools also are not simply educating students, they are also caring for their social and emotional needs. This expands the type of employees that must be part of the school system.” I agree with him and will be voting for the override in April.

As residents, we Belmontians want excellent services and top flight facilities and we have them. We want our schools to be among the best in the state. As taxpayers many of us are shocked and angry at how expensive our excellent quality of life costs us.

The town has a limited commercial tax base so we residential taxpayers have to rely on ourselves to fund the facilities and services we choose to have. Going forward, I see overrides every several years as an uncomfortable but routine aspect of living here.

For years there has been talk of helping seniors, who may be having trouble paying their real estate taxes, stay in their homes but I’m not aware of any follow through regarding this issue. ln order for overrides to be successful I believe this issue needs to be effectively addressed.

Our town employees are an integral and valued part of our community. They contribute to our quality of life in ways we often do not notice. I’m in favor of the police and fire department employees keeping their Civil Service protections and of fair compensation and benefits for all town employees.

Dick Madden
Retired Town Meeting Member
Pleasant Street

Opinion: At This Crossroads, Why School Funding Matters

Photo: Why school funding is critical now

By Stephanie J. Crement

I have been a public-school educator for the past 22 years and currently work as a middle school special educator. I have two children at Butler Elementary School, where I believe they have received and continue to receive an excellent education. However, we are now at a crossroads in our town, and I am very concerned that if we do not pass the override on April 6, our schools will be unable to maintain the high quality of education from which my children and many others have benefitted.

We talk about how we value education in Belmont, yet Belmont spends less than other towns in Massachusetts in nearly every category of the school budget. Belmont is already in the bottom three percent in Massachusetts in number of teachers per 100 students (class size) and in the bottom six percent in Massachusetts in per pupil expenditure. A failed override would make our teacher-student ratio even worse. That funding – or lack thereof – plays out in real ways in the classroom.

One way funding plays out is with class size. In my experience, class size DOES matter. To be sure, highly skilled teachers know how to manage large classes and to differentiate to meet the needs of many students with various needs. But those who say that the size of the class does not significantly affect the experience of the student and the teacher have spent little time in actual K-12 classrooms. The more students there are in the classroom, the less individual attention each student receives during the school day.  During a 57-minute class period, there simply isn’t time for a teacher to check in with 28 students individually. Large class sizes mean fewer opportunities for students and teachers to connect, for students to get feedback, and for students to ask questions and have those questions answered. There is less time for teachers to discover students’ passions and to assess where students might be struggling.  

What is less obvious is that with each additional student, a teacher’s workload increases exponentially. It can mean an additional 30 minutes per child spent reading an essay or grading a math assessment and writing constructive feedback. It can mean an additional hour preparing for, holding, and following up after a parent-teacher conference for each additional child. It’s not that teachers are unwilling to do this. In fact, every Belmont Schools educator who has taught our two children has worked well beyond contractual hours to prepare lessons, communicate with us, and give our students feedback. Moreover, children’s needs extend beyond academics. When our high school cannot hire a social worker, it doesn’t mean that children don’t bring their concerns to school.  It means that helping students work through problems is another part of what teachers and other school-based staff members do, putting additional stresses on their time.

What Belmont doesn’t have in dollars, my children’s dedicated teachers at Butler make up for in energy, hard work, and time.  However, time is a limited resource.  At some point, it just runs out. With increasing enrollment, we will not be able to maintain the quality of education upon which Belmont prides itself, and we certainly won’t be able to make improvements and add new programs. If the override fails, it is our students who will suffer. 

Some might say that research about class size is inconclusive. Let me tell you what is NOT inconclusive:  the importance of the teacher. In fact, it is incredibly well-documented that the most important school-related factor that affects student achievement is teacher quality. Just because our Belmont educators and administrators have worked with fewer resources than our neighboring schools does not mean that we should continue to underfund our schools. Just because the best teachers make it look easy does not mean the burden isn’t heavy. Without this override, I fear that the work will be too heavy to bear, and our schools will not be able to maintain their reputation for excellence.  

We will not be able to retain high quality, experienced educators with large class sizes and without the resources that most other districts around us can offer.  We will not be able to attract more teachers of color to join an overwhelmingly white teaching staff when they can choose districts with smaller class sizes and more resources.

Our lean school budget is not a source of pride or a sign of fiscal responsibility. It means that our children, especially those with learning differences who often need extra time and specialized instruction, aren’t getting what they need and deserve. As a special education professional, I was particularly  shocked to learn that our elementary schools do not have Special Education Chairs. Children who receive special education services have Individual Education Plans (IEP), legally binding documents that outline how the child learns and the services, accommodations, and modifications the student requires as well as the goals that the child is working to achieve. Special educators spend time assessing students, differentiating for student needs, modifying curriculum, and providing accommodations so that students can be successful and master their IEP goals. These are practices in which all good teachers engage. Another facet of a special educator’s job is completing compliance related paperwork.  This paperwork is critical for our students on IEPs to ensure they are receiving the services they need. It is also very onerous and time intensive.  Without Special Education Chairs, those responsibilities fall solely on the teachers and school psychologists. This often leaves those educators with even less time to prepare lessons or provide feedback to students. Hiring special education chairs is not an extra; it allows classroom teachers to devote their time to the job of teaching. 

I hear people say: Belmont students have done well, so why do the schools keep asking for more? For my family, like many others I know, the excellent reputation of the school system is one of the reasons we moved to Belmont.  Many Belmont students do well on standardized tests, an important but very limited measure. However, I’ve spoken with many parents and caregivers of students who receive special education services, or even those who might not have been identified, who say their students are not receiving all the services they need. That’s not because the teachers who work with them are not excellent or hardworking. It’s because our system does not have the capacity to do more. An education system that prides itself on being excellent must be committed to serving ALL students, not just those for whom learning comes easily.  

For years, Belmont educators have done so much with very little, but this isn’t a trip to the dollar bin at Target. It isn’t a game where we try to get as much as we can with as little as possible. These are our children’s futures.  If we say we value education, it’s time that the funding we provide truly reflects that sentiment.  

Please vote yes for the override on April 6.

Stephanie J. Crement

Harris Street

Opinion: Systemic Racism in Belmont; Three Resolutions For 2021

Photo: Participants at a rally in Belmont’s Cushing Square condemning the murder of Henry Tapia

By Joe Bernard

One month has passed since Henry Tapia was murdered in Belmont. More than 100 of his friends and neighbors attended the vigil to honor his life and condemn racial violence, during which Kimberly Haley-Jackson, vice chair of the Belmont Human Rights Commission, memorably captured the weight of the moment with four sobering words: “Yes, Belmont, you too.”

At this point in our country’s history, it might be naïve to call a racist hate crime “shocking”, yet it undeniably sent shockwaves through Belmont. It should not have taken a murder for us to recognize that racism exists in our community, but that is what happened. 

What do we do next?

Prosecuting the racist who killed Henry Tapia is necessary, but it is not enough. Condemning overt racism and hatred is necessary, but it is not enough. Calls for justice will fall short of their goal if we do not acknowledge and disrupt systemic racism. We must find the ways that our structures and systems protect White supremacy, and we must resolve to change them.

Resolution 1: Empower a Diversity Director for Belmont Public Schools

Belmont Educators of Color and Allies (BECA) is a group of Belmont educators that was established in 2018 with the end goal of eliminating racism in our schools. During 2020, BECA conducted research and surveys with the specific intention of creating action items for the future of Belmont Public Schools. On Sept. 15, they presented their recommendations to the School Committee and heads of the School Department.

One of their recommendations was to hire a Diversity Director. This recommendation is foundational, provided that the position is granted sufficient power within the administration to implement the other recommendations: improving staff diversity, decolonizing the curriculum, arranging antiracist training, and more.

In the proverbial “American dream”, education is intertwined with character values like perseverance and grit. Conventional wisdom uses this paradigm to judge students and their families. Yet, for decades, Black and Brown students have faced more challenges and fewer opportunities, creating the feedback loop of White superiority and the model minority myth.

The impact of this cannot be ignored. In fact, it must be used affirmatively in future hiring decisions. In the words of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Accordingly, Belmont Public Schools must commit to hiring a Black or Brown candidate for Diversity Director, whose lived experience can inform their approach to the real equity work of undoing and healing generations of violence, trauma, and inequity (for further reading, see We Want To Do More Than Survive by Bettina L. Love).

The good news is that the School Department’s preliminary FY22 Position Plan includes this position as one of 10.6 new full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) to be hired for the upcoming school year. But I have heard questioning from influential town leadership and town committees about whether or not to fund all new FTEs in the final FY22 budget, even before the presentations were made showing them as conditional upon a successful override vote.

As of now, there is no certainty that a Diversity Director will be hired anytime soon. Furthermore, there is no certainty that the Diversity Director will be given sufficient power to lead meaningful change, without which the position falls flat, little more than a token hire to check off a to-do list.

To address systemic racism in Belmont, we must ensure that the Diversity Director position is treated as the number one priority — not subjected to funding delays or budget cuts — and is promptly filled by hiring and truly empowering a person of color.

Resolution 2: Allow affordable housing, in addition to Affordable Housing

Chapter 40B, the state’s Affordable Housing law, is a frequent topic of conversation in town. For example, last September’s Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 256–5, the McLean zoning amendment that will allow a new 40B residential development to proceed. This was great news, as research has shown that segregation is reduced by building a mix of housing types and ensuring that it is affordable to a more diverse set of residents.

But while we continue to acknowledge and act upon the importance of (uppercase) Affordable Housing, let’s not sleep on the impact of (lowercase) affordable housing. That is, allowing the construction or conversion of modest two-family dwellings in place of single-family dwellings, to make our town more accessible to moderate and middle-income residents, welcoming more diversity without using Chapter 40B.

Single-family zoning laws in America have origins in blatant racism. Across the country in the early 20th century, suburbs used this type of zoning to segregate their neighborhoods without the explicit racial zoning that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional (for further reading, see The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein). Yet despite such disgraceful roots, single-family zoning is still venerated by some as the source of suburban “character”, vital to the very existence of suburbs. Similar rhetoric is commonplace in Belmont, and is even written into our Zoning By-Law, which states the purpose of our General Residence Zoning is “controlling density and preserving the character of the associated neighborhoods”.

The construction of a two-family dwelling is not allowed by right anywhere in Belmont. In Single Residence districts, it is strictly prohibited; in General Residence districts, it is allowed only under a Special Permit from the Planning Board, a deliberate extra hurdle. This zoning is a textbook example of what the Brookings Institution and the Boston Foundation recently called out as intentionally restricting the dynamic functioning of the Greater Boston housing market. “Greater Boston’s persistent residential segregation, both racial and economic, has been caused in part by legal prohibitions against the construction of diverse, lower-cost housing options like townhomes, duplexes and small apartment buildings.”

But while the Planning Board possesses a lot of power as the decision-making body, they are not making unilateral decisions to force housing production outcomes. Quite the opposite, I have observed that they are eager for public input and appreciative to receive it from any perspective. Therefore, it seems that some permitting decisions are simply reactions to the voices that they heard the loudest, which means that we need affordable housing advocates to be actively organizing petitions and attending public meetings.

To address systemic racism in Belmont, we must recognize that our 40B Affordable Housing projects are not “enough”, and actively advocate for more multi-family options that will allow an affordable housing market to function.

Resolution 3: Withdraw from Civil Service

The Civil Service system was established by state law in 1884 to eliminate favoritism in the hiring and promotion of public safety employees by providing a merit-based system for all municipalities that choose to participate. Belmont adopted Civil Service for our firefighters and police officers in 1915. The core components of the system are: 1) administering entrance/promotional exams and 2) restricting hires/promotions to a ranked list of candidates. Exam results are combined with other distinct criteria to generate the ranked list, from which a municipality is required to hire/promote from the top.

On its face, this may seem to be an equitable system. However, upon closer inspection of the criteria that are used, it becomes evident that the ranked list is more biased than objective. The demographics of law enforcement and firefighters skew heavily towards White males, which the Civil Service system does more to preserve than to change. Even departments that recognize their own lack of diversity and want to change cannot do so when they are legally bound to the restrictions of Civil Service.

In a July 2020 report and webinar titled The Diversity Deficit: Municipal Employees in Metro Boston, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) detailed key findings and best practices from an analysis of municipal employee demographics. MAPC is a regional planning agency established by state law in 1963 to promote smart growth and regional collaboration among the 101 cities and towns of Metro Boston, including Belmont. Among the best practices they found to address barriers to diversity in municipal workforces was withdrawal from Civil Service.

Why does the Civil Service system have a discriminatory effect? One reason is the veteran preference, which ranks veterans that pass the exam above nonveterans who scored higher. Despite any merits of this preference, the fact is that our veterans are overwhelmingly White males: 72 percent of veterans aged 18–34, compared to 36 percent of the total population aged 18–34, according to statewide census data. Another reason is the residency preference, which gives preference to a candidate that lived in Belmont for a full year before taking the entrance exam. Considering the annual base salary for an entry-level firefighter or police officer in Belmont is approximately $50,000, the lack of affordable housing and the residency preference work hand-in-hand to perpetuate existing demographics in public safety departments.

Withdrawal from Civil Service does not necessarily mean that a veteran preference or residency preference have to be eliminated. Such preferences can be included in the hiring policy that would replace it. But this policy can weigh other important factors as well, and removing the strict legal requirement to adhere to a ranked list effectively addresses the barriers to diversity while providing a larger applicant pool.

Belmont’s withdrawal from Civil Service has already been considered very recently, when the Select Board placed a question to that effect on the warrant for Town Meeting in September 2020. Vocal opposition to this warrant article was heard across town, particularly from our local police and firefighters unions. But it doesn’t have to be so adversarial and divisive. Many other cities and towns have withdrawn from Civil Service in recent years, so Belmont has plenty of examples to use for mapping our path forward.

While we can hope that town and union representatives find a mutually agreeable way to do so, to address systemic racism in Belmont, we must withdraw from Civil Service one way or another.

Renée Graham, during her keynote speech at Belmont’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Virtual Community Celebration, observed that people tend to think that racism is a problem elsewhere, not in their own community. Well, the fact that racism is a problem in our own community was brutally exposed. And yet, beyond the hatred of overt racism, we must also see that seemingly race-neutral policies and decisions are not harmless.

Belmont’s systemic racism will not be eliminated by inaction or good intentions. Antiracist progress must be made with deliberate policy decisions. The three that I have outlined here are not an exhaustive list nor the end of the road — there will be more work to be done — but we cannot let the magnitude of the problem discourage us from taking steps towards progress. These steps must be taken in 2021.

Joe Bernard is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 3. As the father of two Butler School students, his favorite community involvement is coaching youth sports, as well as volunteering for the PTA. He is an active member of Community Organized for Solidarity and Belmont Against Racism.