Mend Belmont: An Opportunity To Be Heard On Race, Inclusion On Tuesday, 7 PM

Photo: The poster for Mend Belmont

The Select Board, Human Rights Commission, and the Diversity Task Force are sponsoring a webinar series called  Mend Belmont. It is a public forum to discuss race and inclusion in Belmont. It will be a place to be heard. The forum will be moderated by Robert T. Jones.

The first night of the series is Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.

Please click the link HERE to join the webinar by computer, tablet or smartphone.

Or Telephone, call:

1 312 626 6799 or 1 929 205 6099

When prompted, enter: 819 4570 8806 #

When prompted, enter: #

Watch it LIVE in Belmont on BMC GovTV, Ch. 8 on Comcast or Ch. 28 on Verizon

Watch from anywhere online: belmontmedia.org/govtv

Belmont To Honor Purple Heart Recipients Saturday At Vets Memorial

Photo: Poster of 2021 annual Purple Hearts Day ceremony to be held on Saturday

The town of Belmont will hold its annual Purple Heart Day ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 7 at 10 a.m. at the Belmont Veterans Memorial located at Clay Pit Pond.

The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving, with the U.S. military. With its forerunner, the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart is the oldest military award still given to U.S. military members. 

Belmont’s Veterans Services Agent, Bob Upton, will make the welcoming remarks followed by the National Anthem and an invocation from Bob Butler, pastor of the Open Door Baptist Church.

Opening remarks will be delivered by Adam Dash, chair of Select Board, followed by guest speaker Paul Mutch, Sergeant Major USMC (Ret.)

First West Nile Virus Case Of Summer Confirmed In Belmont

Photo: The infection cycle for the West Nile virus. (Credit: CDC.com)

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced on July 15 that West Nile virus has been detected in mosquitoes collected from Belmont.

WNV is most commonly transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. The mosquitoes that carry this virus are common throughout the state and are found in urban as well as more rural areas. While WNV can infect people of all ages, people over the age of 50 are at higher risk for severe infection. 

By taking a few, common sense precautions, people can help to protect themselves and their loved ones:

Avoid Mosquito Bites

  • Apply Insect Repellent when you go outdoors. Use a repellent with DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide), permethrin, picaridin (KBR 3023), IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus [p-methane 3, 8-diol (PMD)] according to the instructions on the product label. DEET products should not be used on infants under two months of age and should be used in concentrations of 30% or less on older children. Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under three years of age.  Permethrin products are intended for use on items such as clothing, shoes, bed nets and camping gear and should not be applied to skin. 
  • Clothing Can Help reduce mosquito bites. Although it may be difficult to do when it’s hot, wearing long-sleeves, long pants and socks when outdoors will help keep mosquitoes away from your skin.
  • Be Aware of Peak Mosquito Hours – The hours from dusk to dawn are peak biting times for many mosquitoes. When risk is increased, consider rescheduling outdoor activities that occur during evening or early morning. If you are outdoors at any time and notice mosquitoes around you, take steps to avoid being bitten by moving indoors, covering up and/or wearing repellant.

Mosquito-Proof Your Home

  • Drain Standing Water – Many mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water. Limit the number of places around your home for mosquitoes to breed by either draining or getting rid of items that hold water. Check rain gutters and drains. Empty any unused flowerpots and wading pools and change water in birdbaths frequently. 
  • Install or Repair Screens – Some mosquitoes like to come indoors. Keep them outside by having tightly-fitting screens on all your windows and doors.

Information about WNV and reports of current and historical WNV virus activity in Massachusetts can be found on the MDPH website at: www.mass.gov/dph/mosquito.

Town Meeting Votes To Move Forward On Community Path Review; A New Court Coming To Winn Brook

Photo: The easement along the north side of the MBTA commuter rail tracks adjacent the French/Mahoney property off of Brighton Street.

An attempt by a prominent Belmont resident to kill off funding for a next step review of the proposed community path was beaten back by Belmont Town Meeting on Monday, June 7 showing the at times controversial project continues to hold wide support in town.

The amendment submitted by Frank French to return $200,000 to the Community Preservation Committee was defeated handily, 64-192, coming after a wild debate that saw French’s attorney make what appeared to be not so subtle threat the town is likely to face millions in legal judgments if it pursued the path project. That was followed by Belmont’s long-time state senator Will Brownsberger informing Town Meeting that it was French who wasn’t holding up his end of a decades-old bargain with the state that allowed his family to build on an old railroad right of way.

In fact, according to town officials, the engineering firm working on the path submitted a revised plan Monday morning that no longer required any forced taking which French was opposing, rendering his amendment – which took nearly two hours to debate – effectively moot.

Monday’s meeting – the second of four nights in which members would debate budget and financial issues – followed the script of the first in which a single binding article dominated the nearly four hour session as the meeting took up four projects presented by the Community Preservation Committee. Two projects, transferring $250,000 to the Belmont Housing Trust to initiate affordable housing partnerships and $35,000 in design costs as part of the renovation of Payson Park, breezed through with little trouble.

It didn’t come as a surprise the $200,000 sought by the Community Path Project Committee to determine the right of way for phase one of the path – from the Clark Street bridge to the Cambridge line at Brighton Street as well as a pedestrian tunnel under the MBTA commuter rail tracks at Alexander Ave – was set to begin a lively discourse as French filed his amendment to put the brakes on the project placing the path’s future on hold and effectively in doubt.

A great primer of the community path project can be found here.

Russ Leino, the chair of the Project Committee, told the assembled members (attending over Zoom or viewing on community television) the funds would be used by Nitsch Engineering to prepare a detailed Right of Way (ROW) plan as part of the requirements to obtain federal Transportation Improvement Program money that will pay for the majority of the construction.

The work will determine if any private property will be impacted by the construction, most likely that will be temporary and minor such as access to the property to complete the design work, said Leino, although there could be permanent impacts such as repairing retaining walls and at pinch points “but will not actually run over the property.” Owners can “donate” that access to the town or have an appraisal done to determine a fair dollar compensation which will require another Community Preservation Committee request to fund. ROW work isn’t new to Belmont as the town did a similar project when the state renovated Belmont Street and Trapelo Road and the recent completed Welling Safe Routes to School project. The plan is critical as the federal government and state will not move forward funding without it.

Saying his committee – as well as the town and Select Board – are committed to minimizing impacts to private property, Leino noted a project of this magnitude will effect someone’s lands. “The funding by this appropriation really has to be completed in order to fully understand and quantify … those impacts for the Town Meeting to decide what you want to do with that information,” said Leino.

French, Precinct 2, said he and the Mahoney family that jointly owns the land at the corner of the Brighton and the commuter rail tracks and from where they run their businesses, have granted an easement to the path but are opposed to any permanent takings. French mentioned the long-stand complaint by those opposing the path that it should have been placed on the south side of the commuter tracks (more on that to come). Because there was the likelihood of an eminent domain taking, the families have “consulted” attorney and Belmont resident George McLaughlin.

McLaughlin initially came before Town Meeting not forwarding his client’s claim but his own experience of 37 years of successfully litigating Eminent Domain lawsuits winning millions for his clients. When McLaughlin returned to the amendment at hand, he spoke at length that in his opinion, Belmont has “vastly underestimated” the potential damages from this path to residential property along Channing Road.

This line of argument apparently was far afield from a pre-meeting agreement with Town Moderator Micheal Widmer on what would be discussed. That consensus quickly blew up as Widmer and McLaughlin took issue with how much leeway would be given in arguing the amendment.

”Mr. McLaughlin, as we’ve discussed before this meeting. Eminent Domain is beyond the scope so I’ll repeat, you need to talk about the path,” said Widmer.

“What I’m trying to inform the Town Meeting members is that if they go ahead with this plan, I think they are pursuing a plan that explore exposes the town to, you know, $4 million in damages,” claimed McLaughlin.

While saying that McLaughlin’s general point on eminent domain was “fine” to bring up, Widmer requested the attorney to “please adhere to my request that you stay with the scope of the discussion,” noting he had done so three times. The back and forth continued with both men saying they had grown frustrated with each others stance with McLaughlin claiming Widmer had “changed the rules” of the debate.

As Widmer attempted to wrangle McLaughlin in – with little success – Town Meeting members began bombarding Town Clerk Ellen Cushman with Point of Order claims noting McLaughlin was well outside the scope of the matter at hand. Widmer pointed out that a town meeting could not be run by those citing rules violations.

While French and McLaughlin spoke on the town taking a portion of the property, Leino presented an “11th hour” development in which Nitsch determined on the previous Friday that the latest design no longer required taking a permanent easement of the French/Mahoney property. “It can be done there on the existing easement. I was happy to see that as a positive development,” said Leino.

And Brownsberger turned French’s claims on their head by reviewing the context of how French’s secured the site in the first place. Brownsberger said in 2008, French – who Brownsberger called a friend who he respects – approached Brownsberger seeking his support in building his business office on the site knowing the right of way would bisect the property. French building sits on a historic railroad right of way, used as far back as the 1870s as the Fitchburg to Lowell connection until passenger service ended in 1927 and commercial rail halted in the 1980s. State statutes requires anyone attempting to build on a rail road right of way to first obtain a determination of inapplicability from the Department of Transportation.

In 2009, Brownsberger helped French get the process rolling to build but only if the Mass DOT which regulates rail right of ways would preserve the possibility of building a bike path from Brighton Street to Belmont Center and not give away the entire right of way which it did.

“So the point is that MASS DOT gave the ability for Mr. French to build … but retains the right to build a bike path through it,” said Brownsberger. While he was allowed to build up to the easement, French also crossed into it to install a stone sign, curbing and parking with the hope that a possible bike path would never be built.

“Now I was chagrined when I learned that Mr. French was upset about this process,” said Brownsberger. While acknowledging that previous design plans from Nitsch appeared to violate the decades old compromise between the state and French, Brownsberger “is very relieved that the discussion over the past week … that there is no need” for any additional land taking in the latest engineering blueprints.

With French’s concerns apparently addressed, “I look forward to continuing to support this path,” working with the state so to “keep solving problems and keep moving this fast forward,” said Brownsberger. “As an elected official, I am absolutely committed to making sure this works within the easement.”

Select Board Member Mark Paolillo next spoke in greater detail how town officials and representatives from Nitsch would keep the path within its prescribed easement. He also addressed the need for the route to travel along the northside of the commuter tracks as being due to the reluctance of the owner of an essential rail spur to negotiate with the town.

With debate open to the public, members sentiments ranged the gambit of why the French amendment was allowed to move forward if the “problem had been solved” to Stephen Rosales from Precinct 8 expressing his support for French via the lyrical talents of Kenny Rogers.

”You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and know when to run,” Rosales said, not sung. Despite the Yeoman efforts by the town, “the time has come. Belmont can no longer hold them,” he said noting that the CPC will “ante up” $1.7 million in studies and engineering work without any guarantee of federal or state funding.

Mark Kagan, Precinct 8, said roadblocks such as the French amendment is the reason that popular infrastructure projects are delayed or killed off. Having lived in bike happy the Netherlands, Kagan said cycling is the wave of the future as it promotes safe, fast transportation that is climate friendly. “Let’s vote this down this amendment and move on Belmont, the greater Boston area and the United States into the future,” said Kagan.

The question was called and the subsequent vote on the Amendment was an overwhelming defeat for French. The debate on the $200,000 allocation for ROW costs was anticlimactic and speedy with the article passing, 200 to 50.

Tennis plus one at Winn Brook

Town Meeting voted to add a single tennis court to the existing facility adjacent to the Winn Brook Elementary School playground and the Joey’s Park Playground.

Jon Marshall, the assistant town manager and recreation director, said an additional court was suited to the site because 1. the town can always use more courts, and 2. an additional tennis court will make for a total of five which is needed to hold regular season and tournament contests by the Belmont High School tennis teams.

Opposition to the new court came from two camps: nearby residents and those who wish to see courts on the high school campus. Melissa McIntyre, Precinct 8, opposed the article, not so much the courts being placed in the neighborhood but the public process the Recreation Commission undertook in approving the location. McIntyre said the strip of green space between Joey’s Park and the courts which will be reduced is an important place that is a place to take a break from the hurly burly of the playground and sport fields. Kathleen “Fitze” Cowing, also Precinct 8, asking why unlike other park and recreation projects the tennis court didn’t go through a two-fpart approval process with a design phase followed by CPC construction funding.

But by 10:45 p.m., the meeting had little energy to go against the CPC’s recommendation and there will be a fifth court at the Winn Brook by the start of the varsity tennis season next April.

Letter To The Editor: Override Will Allow The Arts To Enrich Students Lives

Photo: The BHS PAC production of the musical “Urinetown” produced in 2016.

We are writing as parents of students involved in BHS’s outstanding Performing Arts Company (PAC) and PAC alumnae/i to ask our neighbors to please consider voting YES for the Proposition 2 ½ override on April 6. Since our town’s last override passed in 2015, our expenses have risen beyond what our property taxes are able to cover, and our student population has grown by 333 students (a total of more than 900 since 2007). As we witnessed six years ago, overrides don’t just fill in our town’s economic gaps; they make it possible to hire new teachers, who in turn enrich our students’ lives. Among the tremendous benefits of the 2015 budget was the continued enhancement and development of the high school’s Theater program under the exceptional guidance of Theater Director and teacher Ezra Flam. Appointed fulltime in 2015 thanks to the override, Mr. Flam has expanded performing arts curricula to include new acting and production

Student Directed One Act Plays are a staple of the BHS PAC year. Above is from 2018’s WORDS, WORDS, WORDS By David Ives.

classes as well as extracurricular opportunities for students of varying skill sets and interests. Even as our exceptional Theater program has helped prepare students for some of the most prestigious college performing arts programs, including Berkeley, Tisch, Northwestern, Marymount Manhattan, and Syracuse, the program is also characterized by inclusion: there is space for any/all students in the musical and the Improv team. And those who prefer not to sing, dance, play instruments, or act may participate in set and costume design, lighting, sound, writing, and directing. Each of these roles is essential not only in producing entertaining and thought-provoking performances that the whole community enjoys, but in cultivating vital capacities – like technical production and project management, collaboration, self-confidence, responsibility, and perhaps above all, empathy – in young participants.

We’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in student participation in stage productions; last year more than 150 took part in the spring production of “Shrek” (compared to 100 just six years ago). Since 2013, Improv participation has doubled. At the school’s last Improv performance – just weeks prior to the coronavirus shutdown – the talented assemblage of “Improvites” barely fit on the stage of the school’s “black box” theater. Yet

We ask you to consider the tremendous good that was made possible from the last override, alongside the likelihood that – should this override fail to pass – we will face difficulty maintaining our current levels of funding for theater, music, and athletics.

Matt Cubstead and Caroline Light

the expanding numbers of student participants tell only part of the story of the benefits we reaped from the 2015 override. That vital funding contributed to the appointment of 33 teachers and staff, many of whom were appointed fulltime. Instead of having to juggle multiple part-time jobs, fulltime teachers can invest their energies where they are most needed: getting to know individual students, imagining and implementing new initiatives, collaborating with colleagues, and strengthening existing programs.

As we reflect with gratitude on what the last budget override achieved, we recognize that Belmont’s Theater program continues to do more with less. Our middle school currently lacks a theater teacher, making it difficult to support a high quality and inclusive program. And while the high school continues to “get by” with only one fulltime theater staff person, most comparable high school programs (taking into consideration number of students, number of shows, and scale of shows) have at least a part time technical director or facilities manager, and many have more than one theater teacher. Even as student interest grows, our resources have become stretched thin to the point where our levels of success and inclusion are not sustainable in the long term. Our Theater program is just one example where we lack the resources and professional personnel to imagine and implement the ways of improving our curricula and achieving excellence, since all energies are invested in just maintaining current levels of achievement for a growing population of students. 

2017’s musical Chicago, directed by Ezra Flam.

This year has been especially challenging for our students, as the pandemic extinguished so many social and enrichment opportunities, and our performing arts program came through to provide generative space for creativity and collaboration. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Mr. Flam, along with dance choreographer Jenny Lifson and pianist Jonathan Kessler, students were able to stage their highly popular annual Broadway Night with full on-line access. This involved the resourceful construction of an outdoor stage, including lighting, filming, and audio capacities. The school is preparing for a March production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” as well as a spring Improv show. 

As we look ahead to April 6, we are grateful for the town’s generous support in the last override, which made so many things possible for Belmont’s young performing artists. We recognize too that the past year has been economically challenging, and that this additional imposition on top of our existing property taxes comes at a difficult time. But we ask you to consider the tremendous good that was made possible from the last override, alongside the likelihood that – should this override fail to pass – we will face difficulty maintaining our current levels of funding for theater, music, and athletics. As our town’s population of school-age children has grown in the past decade, we hope we may continue to provide them with the range of transformative co-curricular learning opportunities that distinguish our community as a uniquely special place to call home.

Matt Cubstead and Caroline Light

Anelise Allen ‘18

Annie Baker ‘17

Conor Bean ‘16

Silke Berlinghof-Nielsen

Elizabeth Biondo ‘19

Nicholas Borelli ‘18

James Boyle ‘18

Lilikoi Bronson ‘18

Holly Chen

Jocelyn Cubstead ‘16

Miriam Cubstead ‘18

Julia Cunningham ‘18

Sonya Epstein ‘18

Ben Geiger

David Green ‘15

Hannah Haines ‘15

Jonathan Haines 

Marcia Haines 

Rebecca Haines ‘11

Sammy Haines ‘19

Seneca Hart ‘18

Eva Hill ‘18

Alison Hughes ‘18

Amelia Ickes ‘18

Sri Kaushik ‘19

David Korn ‘17

Josh Lowenstein

Joshua Lubarr

Lisa Lubarr

Sophia Lubarr ‘16

Raffi Manjikian ‘18

Natalie Marcus-Bauer ‘18

Alexander Nielson

Maerose Pepe ‘17

Hannah Pierce ‘20

Olivia Pierce ‘18

Greta Propp ‘18

Anjali Ramakrishnan ‘19

Samuel Rogers ‘18

Elizabeth Sattler ‘20

Rebecca Schwartz ‘18

Dillon Sheehan ‘18

Kathleen Sheehan

Kevin Sheehan

Jesse Souweine

Tess Stromberg ‘18

Georgia Sundahl ‘18

Maria Triccia

Evan Wagner ‘18

Bruce Westgate

Bruce Westgate, Jr. ‘18

Marilyn Westgate

Michelle Yan ‘17

Belmont Back In The Green As COVID Infection Rates Continue To Fall In Town, State and Nation

Photo: COVID update for Feb. 26

With positive cases of COVID-19 over the past week nearing single digits, Belmont has returned to the state’s green color designation on Feb. 26, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Health.

Only 14 new cases were reported in Belmont over a seven day period beginning on Feb. 19, the new case count over the past two weeks indicates an average daily incidence rate of 9.1 per 100,000, and a positivity percentage of 0.98 percent positivity.

Belmont has entered the state’s green designation for the first time since Nov. 26, 2020 with less than 10 average cases per 100,000 or less than 5% positivity, over the past two weeks.

Belmont has reported 997 cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the state began reporting the data. There have been a total of 78 COVID-19 related deaths in the town to date, all of which are confirmed by filed death certificates with the Town Clerk’s Office.

Belmont schools reported six new cases in the six public schools; two each at the High School and Wellington, one at the Chenery and another district wide.

Nationwide COVID-19 transmission continued to fall in the past week as new cases are down by 14 percent, while hospitalizations and deaths are down by 15.6 percent and 5 percent, according to the New York Times.

‘We Do Get It’: Target Of Parents Ire, Prestwich Defends School Committee’s Pandemic Response [VIDEO]

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.

Belmont’s COVID Infection Numbers Continue To Climb

Photo: Update on COVID-19 incidents and rates in Belmont

On the week the first vaccine approved to treat the coronavirus was being administered throughout the country, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Belmont continues a steep rise in lock step with the rest of the country.

In the week ending on Thursday, Dec. 17, 121 Belmont residents contracted the virus, bringing the total number since March to 542.

The extent of COVID’s recent reach in Belmont can be seen mapping the rate of increase in cases over time. From a low point of 0.5 on Sept. 11, the average daily incidence rate (per 100,000) over two weeks has steadily climbed to 28.9 per 100,000 as of Thursday, Dec. 17, demonstrating that Belmont is in the midst of the second “surge” in COVID cases in the US.

Average Daily Incidence Per 100,000 People Over A Two Week Period

Sept. 110.5
Sept. 182.1
Sept. 252.1
Oct. 21.3
Oct. 92.4
Oct. 161.8
Oct. 232.9
Oct. 304.2
Nov. 64.5
Nov. 138.1
Nov. 209.4
Nov. 2710.2
Dec. 414.6
Dec. 1121.9
Dec. 1828.9

Belmont, along with its neighbors Watertown (1,023 total cases, an average daily incidence per 100,000 people greater than 50), Lexington (571 cases) and Arlington (809) are in the state’s designated “yellow” category which indicates a “moderate” risk of contacting COVID-19.

While the infection numbers have skyrocketed, the death count hasn’t budged from 60 since the last reported victim in late May.

Water/Sewer Bills Coming Monthly

Photo: The old bill will be replaced with a combined one with Belmont Light

After sending out water and sewer bills to the public four times a year “for more than forever,” Belmont is prepared to shake things up starting Jan. 1, 2021 when water and sewer remittances will be coming to customers on a monthly basis.

That was the announcement on Monday, Oct. 26 from Department of Public Works Director Jay Marcotte to the Select Board at its Monday, Oct. 26 remote meeting.

The change in billing frequency comes as the Water and Sewer department nears completion of the town-wide smart meter program. The four-year installation plan – replacing older models which required visual reading of the meters with the latest generation of systems that can be “read” online – is nearing 97 percent complete with approximately 400 residences that have yet to give their permission to remove the old meters.

When the automated system is up and running in the New Year, the department will replace its antiquated quarterly billing system and dove-tail into Belmont Lights’ invoice account.

“Once fully implemented, the ability to go to monthly billing is going to be a reality,” said Marcotte.

Before the Jan. 1 turnover, the department will undertake a comprehensive outreach and education program to inform residents of the change, how it will work, tools for on-line payments and viewing of real use consumption by homeowners.

The old system, which will be needed for the 400 customers whose meters have not been replaced, will incurring a fee to the water and sewer department to maintain and staff that system in order to accurately bill for consumption.

Public Works will waive the cost during this time of COVID-19 and will take up what the fee will be with the Select Board next spring.

Lucky Dozen: Streets Named To Undergo Pavement Repair In Fiscal Year

Photo: Pavement contract approved by Select Board.

It was a few months later than when it’s typically announced but the Select Board finally approved at its Monday marathon meeting of Aug. 10 the fiscal year 2020 pavement management project, the annual list of streets, roads and thoroughfares that will undergo repairs and reconstruction.

RM Pacella located in Plainville was the low bidder on the project, according to Glenn Clancy, town engineer and director of the Office of Community Development. The winning bid on the job estimated at $2,258,955 – $1.8 million in road work and $377,000 for sidewalk repair – came in at $1,861,198, so “we did very well compared to the engineer’s estimate,” said Clancy.

The work includes sidewalk repairs on Williston, Alma, Ridge, Harriet Creeley, Benton and Townsend and curbing on Harriet, Alma, and a small portion of Williston.

Clancy said will the contractor is ready to begin the project, with a dozen streets in the contract – slightly more than a typical year’s allotment – “we won’t finish the work this year so it’ll spill into the next year.”

RoadsFrom To
Williston RoadTrapeloHorne
Alma AvenueBartlettBelmont
Ridge RoadBelmontWhite
Juniper RoadSomersetFletcher
Harriet AvenueBartlettBelmont
Creeley Road SladeHammond
Indian Hill RoadOld MiddlesexBenton
Essex RoadBenton Old Middlesex
Preble Gardens RoadOld MiddlesexOakley
Old Middlesex RoadOakleyBenton
Benton RoadPaysonOakley
Townsend RoadPayson (south)Payson (North)