Opinion: At This Crossroads, Why School Funding Matters

Photo: Why school funding is critical now

By Stephanie J. Crement

I have been a public-school educator for the past 22 years and currently work as a middle school special educator. I have two children at Butler Elementary School, where I believe they have received and continue to receive an excellent education. However, we are now at a crossroads in our town, and I am very concerned that if we do not pass the override on April 6, our schools will be unable to maintain the high quality of education from which my children and many others have benefitted.

We talk about how we value education in Belmont, yet Belmont spends less than other towns in Massachusetts in nearly every category of the school budget. Belmont is already in the bottom three percent in Massachusetts in number of teachers per 100 students (class size) and in the bottom six percent in Massachusetts in per pupil expenditure. A failed override would make our teacher-student ratio even worse. That funding – or lack thereof – plays out in real ways in the classroom.

One way funding plays out is with class size. In my experience, class size DOES matter. To be sure, highly skilled teachers know how to manage large classes and to differentiate to meet the needs of many students with various needs. But those who say that the size of the class does not significantly affect the experience of the student and the teacher have spent little time in actual K-12 classrooms. The more students there are in the classroom, the less individual attention each student receives during the school day.  During a 57-minute class period, there simply isn’t time for a teacher to check in with 28 students individually. Large class sizes mean fewer opportunities for students and teachers to connect, for students to get feedback, and for students to ask questions and have those questions answered. There is less time for teachers to discover students’ passions and to assess where students might be struggling.  

What is less obvious is that with each additional student, a teacher’s workload increases exponentially. It can mean an additional 30 minutes per child spent reading an essay or grading a math assessment and writing constructive feedback. It can mean an additional hour preparing for, holding, and following up after a parent-teacher conference for each additional child. It’s not that teachers are unwilling to do this. In fact, every Belmont Schools educator who has taught our two children has worked well beyond contractual hours to prepare lessons, communicate with us, and give our students feedback. Moreover, children’s needs extend beyond academics. When our high school cannot hire a social worker, it doesn’t mean that children don’t bring their concerns to school.  It means that helping students work through problems is another part of what teachers and other school-based staff members do, putting additional stresses on their time.

What Belmont doesn’t have in dollars, my children’s dedicated teachers at Butler make up for in energy, hard work, and time.  However, time is a limited resource.  At some point, it just runs out. With increasing enrollment, we will not be able to maintain the quality of education upon which Belmont prides itself, and we certainly won’t be able to make improvements and add new programs. If the override fails, it is our students who will suffer. 

Some might say that research about class size is inconclusive. Let me tell you what is NOT inconclusive:  the importance of the teacher. In fact, it is incredibly well-documented that the most important school-related factor that affects student achievement is teacher quality. Just because our Belmont educators and administrators have worked with fewer resources than our neighboring schools does not mean that we should continue to underfund our schools. Just because the best teachers make it look easy does not mean the burden isn’t heavy. Without this override, I fear that the work will be too heavy to bear, and our schools will not be able to maintain their reputation for excellence.  

We will not be able to retain high quality, experienced educators with large class sizes and without the resources that most other districts around us can offer.  We will not be able to attract more teachers of color to join an overwhelmingly white teaching staff when they can choose districts with smaller class sizes and more resources.

Our lean school budget is not a source of pride or a sign of fiscal responsibility. It means that our children, especially those with learning differences who often need extra time and specialized instruction, aren’t getting what they need and deserve. As a special education professional, I was particularly  shocked to learn that our elementary schools do not have Special Education Chairs. Children who receive special education services have Individual Education Plans (IEP), legally binding documents that outline how the child learns and the services, accommodations, and modifications the student requires as well as the goals that the child is working to achieve. Special educators spend time assessing students, differentiating for student needs, modifying curriculum, and providing accommodations so that students can be successful and master their IEP goals. These are practices in which all good teachers engage. Another facet of a special educator’s job is completing compliance related paperwork.  This paperwork is critical for our students on IEPs to ensure they are receiving the services they need. It is also very onerous and time intensive.  Without Special Education Chairs, those responsibilities fall solely on the teachers and school psychologists. This often leaves those educators with even less time to prepare lessons or provide feedback to students. Hiring special education chairs is not an extra; it allows classroom teachers to devote their time to the job of teaching. 

I hear people say: Belmont students have done well, so why do the schools keep asking for more? For my family, like many others I know, the excellent reputation of the school system is one of the reasons we moved to Belmont.  Many Belmont students do well on standardized tests, an important but very limited measure. However, I’ve spoken with many parents and caregivers of students who receive special education services, or even those who might not have been identified, who say their students are not receiving all the services they need. That’s not because the teachers who work with them are not excellent or hardworking. It’s because our system does not have the capacity to do more. An education system that prides itself on being excellent must be committed to serving ALL students, not just those for whom learning comes easily.  

For years, Belmont educators have done so much with very little, but this isn’t a trip to the dollar bin at Target. It isn’t a game where we try to get as much as we can with as little as possible. These are our children’s futures.  If we say we value education, it’s time that the funding we provide truly reflects that sentiment.  

Please vote yes for the override on April 6.

Stephanie J. Crement

Harris Street

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Comments

  1. Caroline T says

    Kudos to John Sullivan, the president of the BEA, who has masterfully controlled the school administration and school committee while leaving the families to fend for themselves. To top it off they now want us to throw more money at the problem, essentially rewarding the deplorable way in which they’ve handled this past year. Spoiler: giving the schools more money will not solve the vast number of problems facing our schools.

    • Tom Curran says

      Totally agree! While he’s out jogging everyday collecting a paycheck with no regards to the students and parents. But wait let’s give them another raise and put the rest of the town employees at risk. Funny there have been employees who have worked through all this and not complained about their safety. School department and committee needs a full overhaul. Way to many positions and false needs put in for in their budget. Look at student enrollment in the 70s,80s, and early 90s. We were here before and managed much better with less FTE. Through the years every town department has suffered due to the schools selfishness. Demand the records now! Stop the mob mentality from the BEA. Come to work and work a full day or give up your exuberant pay

  2. Sarah G. says

    I have to disagree with the statement that Belmont has “many experienced teachers”. One of the many ways in which Belmont avoids increases in their spending is by hiring teachers who are often straight out of college with no master’s degrees. They then work towards a master’s degree while teaching, and often that degree is from some random online program. Furthermore, Belmont does not properly train their teachers or support them once they’re in the system. As just one example up until last year the elementary level didn’t have an actual curriculum for reading or writing. Once they adopted a program (one that was popular over a decade ago, but par for the course as Belmont is at least 10-15 years behind other districts) they didn’t have enough money in the budget to have all of the teachers trained- nor did they have the money to buy the materials needed for the classrooms! Additionally, adding to this echo chamber of teaching ignorance is the fact that Belmont does not have any curriculum coaches, or any curriculum directors, at the elementary level. From what I have witnessed the teaching in this district is mostly the blind leading the blind. Belmont does not ever, and could not ever, afford to hire any teacher with years of experience under his or her belt. Most other top rated districts will not even give you an interview unless you have worked elsewhere and essentially learned the hard way. Just another example of this school district hiding the truth from its tax payer base.

  3. Mamou says

    Some interesting comparisons:

    Average Teacher salary:

    Belmont-$93,414
    Arlington: $74,792
    Winchester: $80,240

    Per Pupil Expenditure:

    Belmont $14,246
    Arlington: $14,549
    Winchester $14,100

    Boston $21,000
    Minuteman Tech.:$35,000

    Does that mean that per-pupil expenditure guarantees that the education is better? Obviously not!

    • Mary Lewis says

      The figures shared by Mamou are somewhat misleading. The average salaries mentioned include people of vastly different teaching experience. While teachers under 26 make up 9.4% of Arlington’s teaching staff, teachers this young only constitute 5.3% of Belmont’s. Belmont has comparatively higher salaries because it has many experienced teachers, something we should applaud. There are costs in frequent turnover of teachers and in training early-career teachers.

      Moreover, there’s a lot more to per-pupil expenditure than teacher salaries. If folks want to take a look at slide number 23 here, it shows how much lower our spending is in virtually everything – staff, teachers, guidance counselors, etc: https://www.belmont.k12.ma.us/bps/Portals/0/docs/budget/2021/2022/BPS_FY22-_Budget_Summary_PTO_Presentation_02-11-21_1.pdf?ver=2021-02-11-110628-890

      If you look at slide 26 on the same link, you’ll see all the things other districts have that we don’t have and that we maybe could have if we just spent the state AVERAGE, something even this override will not bring us to.

      Minuteman Tech obviously spends money on all kinds of equipment and supplies that traditional schools don’t use and Boston has a much more complex learning situation. So this is not an apt comparison.

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