Rising Enrollment, Structural Faults Puts Schools Half-a-Million in Red

It isn’t “the happiest news” the Belmont School Department wanted to give anytime, especially less than two months into the school year, said Laurie Slap, chair of the Belmont School Committee.

If expenditures and trends continue on their current trajectories, the fiscal year 2015 school budget will end the year approximately $500,000 in the red, according to the school’s Director of Finance and Administration Anthony DiCologero.

The forecast, present to the Belmont School Committee at its Tuesday night meeting on Oct. 28, “is not a deficit in any item,” said DiCologero. 

While there isn’t one specific cause, there is an overriding theme to the shortfall facing Belmont’s public schools: the well-noted increase of students entering the system. 

Kevin Cunningham, at his final committee meeting as he will be replaced by the next meeting on Nov. 18, said the expense spike is “enrollment driven” – with the surge of students has come the need for more services “that is driving costs.”

Due to the rapid rise in total enrollment in all grade levels, a jump in children who are English Language Learners and an increase in students requiring special education instruction has placed the budget under pressure as salaries are nearly $225,000 above the $31.4 million budgeted for the fiscal year, noted DiCologero. 

The deficit comes from adding instructors to address enrollment and ELL needs as well increasing the number of special education aides, tutors and occupational therapists.

The remaining $360,000 of the total deficit is the result of an increase in special education expenses such as $125,000 for tuition for six additional out-of-district students (Belmont pupils who are determined will be educated outside the public schools) and $60,000 in added transportation costs.

John Phelan, Belmont’s first-year school superintendent, said he has spoken to administrators, principals and staff on the need “slow down” expenditures such as bringing new technology into the schools and to “prioritize spending.”

But, said Phelan, the “big picture” is “what we need to do differently next year” to prevent repeating the same steps in fiscal 2016.

“These are structural issues,” said Cunningham. And while “this year we’ll strategically shrink it” the deficits will only continue unless expenses are placed in a more long-term context.”

Belmont Super Tells School Committee What He Did This Summer

At his first Belmont School Committee meeting, John Phelan told the members what he has been doing this summer.

And Phelan, the district’s new school superintendent, has been doing much in the first two-and-a-half months on the job.

“I had a very, very busy summer but also a very, very productive summer,” Phelan said during the abbreviated meeting Tuesday night, Sept. 16.

There were many “coffee talks” with residents and teachers, greeting teachers, visiting four of the six district schools on the opening day and attending retreats and group forums, all part of Phelan’s “road map” to better understand Belmont community and the educational culture.

“I want to thank you for the warm welcome I’ve received,” said Phelan, saying he found the environment in the schools “as being engaged in learning.”

As part of his school-year long, three-part “entry” plan into the system – which will be released next week online and in print form at each school –Phelan met with the district’s Leadership Council, made up of the district’s principals, top administrators and senior staff, which during a two-day retreat in August, pointed out several areas for Phelan and the School Committee to consider as key issues to focus on in the coming year.

“I walked into the room with the Leadership Council and the wall was plastered with sheets of paper with all these notes on them. The energy was palpable, and it was a great experience,” Phelan told the committee.

On Tuesday, Phelan said he is committed to placing three of the Leadership Council’s ideas into the district’s strategic plan which is the town’s educational blueprint:

  • Safety in all the district’s schools.
  • Create a plan to deal with the district’s growing enrollment and increasing class sizes.
  • Meet the social/emotional needs of each student, looking beyond test scores to produce successful citizens.

Phelan said implementing this plan will likely take the entire school year to complete and then can only be successful if the school budget can accommodate the items.

“We have to generate a budget before we can complete our long-term plans,” he told the committee.

Ready, Set, School! What to Know For the First Day of Belmont Schools

Wake up, sleepy heads! Wednesday, Sept. 3 is the first day of the new 2014-15 school year at each of Belmont’s six public schools! Just 184 more days before the final day on Monday, June 22, 2015. (We know that date is unlikely with snow days sure to come.) 
On day one: 
  • It is a full day for students grades 1-12.
  • No school for Kindergarteners; they begin next week. 
  • It is a Wednesday schedule for all students.

Purchase meals and plans online here.

Belmont High School

Wednesday is Opening Day for Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12: All grades will report to school at 7:35 a.m. for homeroom. Freshmen will report to the Auditorium for a brief assembly at 8:15 a.m. Seniors will report to the Auditorium for a brief assembly at 12:35 p.m. A Quick Reference Guide, including the schedule for Opening Day and the first week of school, has been uploaded to each student’s Edline account. 

The first day of school is a FULL-DAY of classes.

Homeroom assignments for all students will be posted in the main lobby and posted on the Belmont High School website. Students should report to homeroom at 7:35 am where they will receive course schedules and locker information. Homeroom teachers will explain the schedule and answer any other questions. After homeroom, students will attend each class on their Wednesday schedule and meet with teachers.

Start Time: 7:35 a.m.

Dismissal times this year are:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 2:25 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:25 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 10:30 a.m.

Chenery Middle School

Start Time: 7:55 a.m.

Dismissal Times:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday2:25 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:15 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 11 a.m.

Burbank, Butler, Wellington Schools:

Start Time: 8:40 a.m.

Dismissal Times:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday2:50 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:40 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 11:40 a.m.

(1/2 Day Kindergarten: 8:40 a.m. to 11:55 a.m.)

Here is what you’ll need to know about the first day at the Wellington, general info about arriving and leaving the Butler and  the first day at the Burbank.

Winn Brook School

Start Time – 8:50am

Dismissal Times: 

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 3 p.m.
  • Wednesdays1:50 p.m.
  • Wednesday Early Release will be at 11:50 a.m.

(1/2 Day Kindergarten: 8:50 a.m. to 12:05 p.m.)


Last Day, Final Advice from ‘Interim’ Superintendent Kingston

Dr. Thomas Kingston’s final day in charge of the Belmont School District was a leisurely one.

Wearing a seasonal pink Polo shirt at the School Department’s Administration Building on Pleasant Street, Kingston had completed the bulk of “clearing out my desk” on Sunday when he could have a day of “quiet resolve.” So by Monday, June 30, the Arlington resident had little left to do but for a few minor tasks as well as writing a note to his successor, Milton’s Assistant Superintendent John Phelan, which he left on the desk in his now empty office.

After three years of what many residents considered a highly successful tenure at the head of a highly-regarded school district, the former head of the Chelsea Public Schools, who accepted what was to be a one-year appointment in June 2011 will turn to coaching new superintendents for the state’s superintendents association.

Before he departed in the early afternoon, Kingston granted the Belmontonian a few last minutes to ask about his time leading the district and some final thoughts.

Belmontonian: What surprised you of the community?

Kingston: What surprised me initially was that Belmont was so economically conservative for such a high performance district. The investments to the schools were very carefully monitored, successfully so. I don’t consider that a negative.

Q: In the past decade, Belmont schools have seen an ever increasing influx of children of immigrants or those whose native language is not English. Will this be an important change to education in Belmont?

A: I don’t think it’s going to be important. I think it is since it’s already here. I read where 15 percent of the Massachusetts population is foreign born and 14 percent in the US, which is the highest rate of immigration in the hemisphere or perhaps worldwide. We are an immigrant nation.

So in terms of our educational enterprises we have to be more sophisticated on how to work with second language learners and children who come from varying cultures.

The first key is to acknowledge this shift in demographics and the increasing international population. That requires teachers to be that much more intent to their ability to work with second-language students and understand how learning a second language occurs. That’s why Belmont is putting our teachers through sheltered English immersion training because we are assuming that at some point soon in their careers, they will be a teacher of just those students.

And remember, this change in population enriches the opportunities and certainly enriches the stature of the district to have an international reputation. It’s an achievement.

Q: For the past year, you have called for an operational override to allow Belmont to “continue providing the best education to … students.” if passed, how should the town and schools use the new revenue?

A: The use of any additional revenue from an operational override will be dependent on the long-range plans [decided by the town.] You can’t use the funds as a Band-Aid because that is a cliff that you fall right off.

I don’t know the precise amount that is needed; the lesson for Belmont is see how Arlington constructed its long-term override [passing a $6.5 million, multi-year override in June 2011 in an effort to restore core instruction in Arlington schools]. But even then, schools can be hit by a huge influx of student so you could be facing some deficits that you have to close with reserve cash transfers. You can’t allow those to be drained prematurely.

There is a list of priorities for using any additional money starting with hiring another English Language Learner teacher at the Chenery [Middle School] that will help reduce class size there. Then there is the auxiliary support to teachers such as with district aides. But those can only be accomplished with available funds.

There are instructional needs [Kingston has advocated the return of foreign language at the Chenery] for sure but those are add-ons. The priority list is to ensure that you can meet the needs of an increasing student population.

Then you want to restore some of the services that have been defunded over the years, for the social and emotional needs of students by hiring counselors and then restore the instructional opportunities cut in the past such as 5th grade foreign language and fine arts at the High School.

Q: What should parents and residents do to keep Belmont a top-level school system?

A: Parents need to be involved citizens and be aware of the natural tension that there always is between very high property taxes and very high service demands not just coming from the school system. The schools must be linked arm-to-arm and leg-to-leg with the town. We can not be in conflict with town needs and can not be trying to steal the money away from the infrastructural issue that the town faces. Priorities must be made jointly. I’m happy to say that Belmont understands this.

School’s Out! Summer Recess Begins; Town Clears Out

The calendar says that summer begins on Saturday, June 21.

But every Belmont parent or student knows that summer officially starts late in the morning of today, Friday, June 20 as the six public schools close their doors for the summer recess.

Several schools will have ceremonies on the final day of the school year with fourth graders and eighth graders marking their last day in elementary school and at the Chenery Middle School.

Today is an early-release day of the public schools. Here is the schedule:

• 10:30 a.m. for High School,

• 11 a.m. for Chenery Middle School and

• 11:40 a.m. for elementary schools with the exception of the Winn Brook which releases at 10 minutes until noon.

Today also marks the unofficial start of the summer get away as families and residents begin the annual extended vacations and trips away from the “Town of Homes.” It is reported that upwards of 10 percent of the population will be away from Belmont from July 1 to Aug. 31.