Letter to the Editor: Despite State’s Move on Capital Costs, ‘No’ Remains Best Course

Photo: Michael Libenson

To the editor:

Last Monday [Sept. 12] I served as a panelist for the League of Women Voters information session on the Minuteman referendum. I explained why there is a clear and compelling financial case for a “no” vote on the Minuteman referendum.

A broad group of Belmont town leaders agree. The Board of Selectmen and School Committee have voted unanimously to recommend a “no” vote, as has our State Sen. Will Brownsberger. The Warrant Committee voted 13-1 to recommend a “no” vote.

Some have asked me whether the subsequent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ruling that allows Minuteman the option to charge non-member towns between 75 percent and 100 percent of the member town capital cost alters my perspective. It does not.

Belmont residents should vote “no” on Tuesday. It remains true that Belmont should save over $200,000 each year, and perhaps more, as a non-member town and yet still generate the same educational outcomes for our children.

The Minuteman district is broken and the recent DESE ruling doesn’t change that. The district is broken because nearly half the students come from non-member towns – including Watertown, Waltham, and Cambridge – and non-member towns are treated differently in the form of lower costs, most importantly with tuition, and secondarily with capital. 

The primary cost difference is due to non-member towns paying substantially less in tuition than member towns like Belmont. Belmont’s tuition cost this year will be $30,602 per student and Watertown will pay $19,702 per student on average. This large difference does not change and there is no clear path to change.

With 26 students at Minuteman, Belmont currently paying approximately $280,000 more than we would if Belmont were a non-member town like Watertown. This tuition disparity is the main reason no non-member town has joined the district in more than 30 years.

Tuition cost is also an important factor in why six of the sixteen towns have recently voted to leave the district.

Second, despite DESE’s recent ruling, capital costs remain unknown. The one thing we do know is that non-member towns will never pay more than member towns.

Minuteman now has to decide how much to charge non-member towns for capital. Imposing the full capital charge of $8,460 will likely cause non-member towns to explore sending some or all of their students to other schools that are substantially cheaper (as Minuteman is already the most expensive voc/ed school in the Commonwealth, even without any capital charge). Minuteman needs these non-district students to fill the school.

If a number of non-member students go elsewhere – or those towns even threaten to go elsewhere – Minuteman will have to choose between an underutilized school (and therefore even higher operating and capital costs borne by the remaining members) or a lower capital fee for non-members. For member towns, this means risk without reward and Belmont need not bear this risk.

Here is the bottom line: the reason why the current decision is so consequential is that a “yes” vote will lock Belmont into a bad deal for 30 or more years. We have an opportunity on Tuesday [Sept. 20] to avoid locking ourselves into a broken system for generations.

The financial case remains clear and compelling that Belmont should vote “no”.

Michael Libenson
Town Meeting Member, Precinct 1
Chair, Belmont Warrant Committee

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