The ‘O’ Word Center Stage During Budget Debate at Town Meeting

It was a pretty expensive springboard – the debate of Belmont’s fiscal 2015 budget – Belmont Town Meeting members used to bring attention to the “O” word during Monday night’s reconvened Town Meeting held at the Chenery Middle School on June 2.

“O”  as in override which advocates for greater spending for the schools and general government are prepared to push the Belmont Board of Selectmen to use its authority to place a multi-year, multi-million dollar operational measure on the ballot.

During Monday’s discussion of the $46.2 million ’15 School District budget – or $52.4 million when government grants and other non-general revenue costs is calculated – members voiced their dissatisfaction with the shortcomings within the schools; which, they claim, must be remedied with additional cash, the sooner the better.

“We can not wait until April [2015, when the Town Election takes place] to decide we’re going to place an override on the ballot and then do it in June when three-quarters of the people who are going to be standing up in favor of this don’t even know there’s a vote,” said Kimberly Becker of Precinct 6.

“We need to have this on the ballot in November when people are out voting” in the general election, said Becker to applause.

“I don’t want anyone telling me we don’t have enough time to do it in November. There is plenty of time,” she said to cheers from supporters.

The throwing down of the override gauntlet by several Town Meeting members on Monday would seem a bit surprising as, unlike years past, the school budget was “drama free” as described by Warrant Committee Chair Mike Libenson. The district – which has been riding high as one of the few top-tier school districts in Massachusetts and Belmont High School ranked 151st in the nation by US News & World Report – is receiving a relatively healthy increase of more than four percent, or about $1.9 million, in available town revenue from the previous year.

Yet the increase spending is only enough to, as the Warrant Committee states will “maintain level services” which includes retaining nearly 19 full-time equivalent classroom positions hired last year just to keep up with 140 new students in the system.

So while the Red Queen can tell Alice that “here we must run as fast as we can just to stay in place,” many Town Meeting members are just not willing to accept the claim that level spending means keeping up with past educational standards.

“We talk about level service budget every single year while we watch many things get cut, class sizes get fuller. This is a joke,” said Anne Mahon of Precinct 4.

“Our kids are losing. We may have gotten into [US News & World Report] but a lot of that is because parents compensate  when their kids get home. Help the school system out, get an override on the ballot and put it out in November when we have time to vote for it,” said Mahon.

As both Laurie Slap, School Committee chair and soon-to-be-leaving “interim” Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston told the meeting, there are serious budgetary worries in the near future, driven by skyrocketing enrollment (up to 500 additional students projected coming to Belmont over the next decade), new salary contracts and greater demands for services by students and staff.

“Sometimes we have to make hard decisions because, just like the family budget, the money will alway be limited,” said Kingston.

Precinct 1’s Rachel Berger, explained that unlike past years, this year “is not a Cadillac budget. I don’t event think this is even your father’s Oldsmobile budget.” 

While the school article did not come under the sort of detailed scrutiny of years past – there were just a few questions before the $46.2 million school expenditure for fiscal 2015 was approved with little opposition – the anxiety of school budgets yet to come served as the catalyst for those in the auditorium who contend that the time to strike the override iron is now.

One of the chief complaints is the myriad of hidden “taxes” residents must currently burden, in the form of substantial student user fees – the family of a three-sport athlete is out $1,100 yearly – to the inability of the district to restores or add to school programing (the district’s “wish list” of programs and staff it could not fund continues to grow).

“We told children to do activities, do sports,” said Precinct 8’s Christine Kotchem. “But now its very, very costly. What do you tell a student when you just can’t pay?”

“Someone paid for our children to do these activities and it’s time for us in the community to turn to our neighbors and say ‘This isn’t right.’ We need to fully fund our schools,” said Kotchem, whose own children graduated from Belmont High School a decade ago.

While the cries of “override” were met with general acclaim within the hall, the same enthusiasm for an increase in homeowners tax bills may not be as universal with the neighborhoods. It has been a dozen years since Belmont voters approved an override, for $2.4 million in June 2002, with the last three attempts (in 2006, 2008 and 2010) defeated by close votes.

But some believe that times are changing on the willingness of communities to shoulder a heavier burden to support “good” schools and there is some evidence of that at yesterday’s special election in Shrewsbury. There voters by a two-to-one margin approved a $5.5 million Proposition 2-1/2 operational override, its first successful override in more than two decades, to add programs, staffing and technology to the schools. 

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