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

Photo: Roy Epstein, chair of the Belmont Warrant Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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