State’s ‘October Surprise’ As Minuteman Throws Wrench into Election

Photo: The new school, image from KBA Architects.

In politics, a news event deliberately created or timed, or sometimes occurring spontaneously, to influence the outcome of an election, is called an “October Surprise.” 

While the majority of those “surprises” are usually seen in presidential campaigns, a last-minute decision by the commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, requiring non-district students attending Minuteman Regional Career and Technical High School to pay a larger share of the new building’s capital cost has given some Belmont residents pause on how they will vote Tuesday, Sept 20.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, Mitchell Clifford, DESE Commissioner, reached a decision that will require non-district students attending Minuteman to pay a greater amount of the capital costs being incurred by the ten remaining district cities and towns. That single issue has been one of the most contentious issues Belmont officials – along with the size of the building, built to house 635 students while in-district communities send less than 350 – have been fighting over the past five years when it became apparent the aging Minuteman building had outlasted its usefulness. 

Under the current tuition plan, Belmont spends approximately $30,600 per student to attend Minuteman while an out-of-district community such as Watertown, which pays roughly $19,700 in tuition per student a year or $10,900 less on a per student basis. Minuteman supporters claim the current gap is closer to $7,000 if including costs of transportation and other expenses. 

In 2020 when the new capital ‘increment” takes place, out-of-district student tuition will jump by $6,000 for towns with fewer than five voc/tech classes in its school district. A community with at least five tech programs would pay a reduced rate of $4,500.

Under the new formula, Minuteman officials contend the financial advantage of leaving the district and then returning to “rent” seats as a non-member town is nearly completely nullified. 

The pro-financing side goes so far as proclaiming on its website – mmvote.infor – that Belmont residents who have long sought a “fair share of capital costs” from communities outside the district convinced the state to its argument.

“Congratulations …  — you won!” said the site.

The DESE decision prompted a significant defection from the “no” side – which has been pushing for Belmont to leave the district – when Roy Epstein, a member of the town’s financial watchdog Warrant Committee, wrote Friday, Sept. 16 that he had changed his vote just days after writing of his support for the town to take a strong stance to force the state’s hand on the capital expenses.

“I changed my mind on this vote because Belmont won a major victory this week,” said Epstein in a letter to the Belmontonian. He stated Belmont would “pay the same capital charge even if we became a non-member town. That is the outcome we demanded — an equal per-student amount for the cost of the new building.”

While one of the leading voices of the “no” vote is “glad to see that they have allowed for a substantial capital fee to be assessed by Minuteman,” Ellen Schreiber said “I still recommend that Belmont vote “No” on the Minuteman debt.”

“I don’t think that the DESE policy changes anything,” Ralph Jones, a former Belmont Selectman who created a group to promote a “no” vote, told the Belmontonian.

For both Shrieber and the “no” leadership, the DESE decision answers just one of Belmont’s questions: what is the maximum allowable capital fee, said Schreiber, but does not reduce the risk Belmont would accept if we agree to the debt.

At a League of Women Voter’s Forum last Monday, Jack Weis, Belmont’s representative to the Minuteman School Committee, described Belmont’s portion of the debt as “unknowable” due to three reasons, countered Schreiber:

Non-member tuition is substantially less than member operating costs, and if Belmont agrees to the debt, the town is locked into that significant financial disparity for the next 30 years. And the debt remains perilous, she said, the amount that Belmont owes will change year-to-year based “on factors that are out of its control.” 

Jones agreed with Schreiber that the new capital increment “is a wise and fair policy,” but it can only work if non-member towns continue to send their students to Minuteman to fill the 300 empty seats and if the Minuteman School Committee will enforce the new policy “and not revert to their traditional policy of discounting tuitions for non-member towns until the empty seats are filled.”

Putting one’s faith into those assumptions coming to pass, contend, Jones, is simply too risky for a town that is facing several high-cost capital projects including a $100 million high school renovation.

Jones points to State Sen Will Brownsberger’s argument that towns such as Watertown and Waltham have good options at the cost of about $18,000 – $20,000 per student to find an alternative to Minuteman which will cost the town’s $26,000 a year in tuition in 2020. 

“If I were an official in either Watertown or Waltham, I would do two things,” said Jones. “First, I would be working collaboratively with other non-member towns to ensure a robust set of alternatives for my students.  After that, if Minuteman asked me to send students, I would demand a substantial discount in tuition cost,” he said. 

“I appreciate the idealism of many Belmont residents who are trying to make the Minuteman District work,” said Jones.

“After 25 years of meeting with Superintendents and Minuteman School Committees, I agree with Brownsberger that the district is broken.”

Belmont voters join the 15 communities (Acton, Arlington, Bolton, Boxborough, Carlisle, Concord, Dover, Lancaster, Lexington, Lincoln, Needham, Stow, Sudbury, Wayland, Weston) which are members of the Minuteman School District to vote on the $100 million in financing on Tuesday, Sept. 20, from noon and 8 p.m.

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