Photo: Belmont Superintendent John Phelan speaking to the Belmont Board of Selectmen and the School Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 17.
The Belmont Board of Selectmen unanimously voted Tuesday night, Feb. 18, to place before voters a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override that will coincide with the annual Town Election set for Tuesday, April 7.
“I think we should make a brave decision to place the appropriate override on the ballot,” said Selectman Sami Baghdady as the three-member board decided not to delay a decision on the override until next week’s selectmen’s meeting.
“There, it’s on the ballot,” said Andy Rojas, chair of the board to the applause from two dozen residents and members of the Belmont Education Association, the union representing teachers and staff in the district.
This is the first override question facing Belmont voters since the unsuccessful attempt in June 2010 when residents rejected a $2.5 million initiative targeting schools and roads, 53 percent to 47 percent. A $2 million roads override was defeated by the same percentage in 2008.
The vote came after a joint meeting of the Selectmen and Belmont School Committee which heard Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan present the stark budgetary options facing the school district in the coming fiscal year which starts on July 1.
Under a budget relying on anticipated revenues for fiscal 2016, the school district will face a $1.7 million funding gap that will be resolved by eliminating 22 full-time teaching and staff positions, allow class sizes to exceed the district’s benchmarks for effective teaching and increase fees for all student activities.
“We really felt that this was important for Belmont,” Rojas told the Belmontonian after the vote.
“We hear all sides [of the override issue], and I certainly understand and we will try to mitigate the impact on the elderly and those on fixed incomes. However, once you see the presentation by [Phelan] and where the available budget leads you, it’s almost negligent not to consider an override,” said Rojas.
“Whatever the outcome of the vote, the efforts of the Financial Task Force will not die,” said Baghdady.
Before voting for the measure, the selectmen each spoke of the override as just one component of a wider approach to tackling the structural deficit facing the town and schools, recommendations raised in the final report of the Financial Task Force, the Selectmen appointed committee that spent a year analyzing Belmont’s long-range financial outlook.
“We are taking all the Task Force’s recommendations very seriously. It will include reforms both structurally and non-structural, it’s creativity on how we run both government and schools and, of course, making sure we fund the programs that are obviously the key part of the override,” said Rojas.
The vote came after a joint meeting of the Selectmen, and Belmont School Committee heard Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan present the budgetary options facing the school district in the coming fiscal year which starts on July 1.
“I should know this as this is the fourth time in six days I’ve made the presentation,” said Phelan told the joint meeting.
Reiterating in detail the pressures facing the school district in his meeting with the School Committee last Thursday, Feb. 12, (see “Belmont Schools Face ‘Significant, Negative Impact’ in Fiscal ’16 Budget; Loss of 22 Positions, Larger Class Sizes” Feb. 12) Phelan presented a stark reality for education in Belmont under an available revenue budget in the next school year: Staff cuts, greater class sizes, less material and supplies, an increase in free time and study halls for middle and high school students and higher fees for students and parents.
Speaking of the student fee increase, families with two children in athletics, a club, and the arts, “you very quickly get to $6,000 to $7,000,” said Phelan.
Phelan told the board the cuts will have a human face to them at next week’s School Committee when he and the Leadership Council – made up of senior staff, principals and department and curriculum heads – pinpoint specific positions and areas which will be eliminated.
“It’s a very disturbing picture,” said Phelan, noting that 80 percent of the school budget “is people so the biggest part of the cuts will be from there.”
As with the previous presentations, Phelan told the meeting the Task Force’s recommendation of a $4.5 million override to stabilize town expenditures will allow the district to keep existing staff and teachers, meet state-mandated required hirings due to a doubling of students requiring English Learning tutoring as well as new hires to meet the exploding enrollment and reduce the free time an ever increasing number of middle and high school students are handed.
“There are no new bikes” in the budget with the $4.5 million increase, said Phelan; the district will not introduce new classes, only retaining the current level of instruction.
“We do believe that we are at a crossroads,” Phelan said of the district, adding that he and the Leadership Council “believe the town needs to make an investment in the schools.”
During a citizen comment period, several teachers and residents expressed their support for the override to assist them in educating Belmont students.
“We teach children, I teach children,” said Dori Pulizzi, a seven-year veteran teacher at the Chenery Middle School. But the only way to effectively do so is with a ratio that she can meet the social/emotional needs of each student. With 28 in a class, Pulizzi said she can only give each student a minute of her time within a 50-minute class after providing the class lesson.
Suzanne Pomponio, a third grade teacher at the Winn Brook with 23 students in her class, said teaching “is just getting harder for students to do what is expected with the demands of Common Core [being introduced to Belmont schools].”
“It’s more stressful for the students, and they need that emotional support but we have less and less time to provide it,” said Pomponio.
After the vote, John Sullivan, the president of the BEA and a Belmont resident, said a vote for the override “is a chance to maintain quality of our outstanding schools.”
“Now we need to get community support, to work together to provide Belmont teachers what they need,” said Sullivan.