Town Election: Yes On Override; Wins For Taylor, Widmer, Moriarty And Kraft; Assessors Question Too Close To Call

Photo: Warden Robert McKie reads out the preliminary results from precinct 2 on Tuesday night

Belmont voters approved a record $8.4 million Proposition 2 1/2 override by a comfortable 1,000-plus vote margin at the annual Town Election held on Tuesday, April 2.

The final tally was 5,120 in the yes column and 4,050 nos as voters accepted the positive argument from the “yes” campaigners to preserve public services and safety and protect Belmont schools from losing educators and maintain its outstanding reputation.

“I think it’s that people love their community,” said Erin Rowland, the campaign manager for Invest In Belmont, the “yes” campaign, when asked the compelling reason voters where willing to increase the property tax just three years after rejecting a smaller override request.

”We want the to see the town thrive and continue to be successful, and that’s the reason people came together. What was so heartwarming about working on the campaign was the outpouring of support from a wide range of residents,” she said in a crowded second floor lobby in Town Hall where candidates, observers and many candidates came after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Invest in Belmont Chair David Lind said the town has “been through a hard few years and we were in a tough spot financially. I believe that [the override] gets us back onto a better track so we can all work together and keep Belmont as the town that we all know land love.”

Rowland, who was a winner in her race to be selected to Town Meeting from Precinct 6, said she fully understood that Tuesday’s results will be difficult for many residents, especially senior on fixed incomes.

”We are one community and we want to do everything we can to see Belmont implement senior [property] tax relief. We understand that need and it’s very real and we’ll do everything that we can to promote that,” she said.

In the night’s nail biter, voters approved making the Board of Assessors an appointed body by a mere eight votes, 4,218 to 4,210. With 50 ballots – from residents overseas and in the military as well as provisional ballots – yet to be counted, the race is too close to be called.

Final results will be released by the Town Clerk’s office by Friday or Saturday. Unofficial results as of Tuesday at 10 p.m. can be seen here.

In the race to replace Mark Paolillo on the Select Board, Matt Taylor defeated his Warrant Committee colleague Geoff Lubien by 600 votes, 3,851 to 3,248, with newcomer Alex Howard taking home 659 votes.

“I began [this campaign] genuinely wanting to connect with people and doing that in a deeply personal way,” said Taylor after feeling “so separated from our local government and our residents coming out of the pandemic. So I knocked on nearly 1,700 doors. I had a lot of one-on-one conversations. It was very grassroots.”

”I have a lot of hope and I’m ready to work because this is a level where you get to make a real positive difference about the people around you,” said Taylor. “We have to reach out to residents and invite them in to have a broader two-way discussion. It brings us together. This is an “us” thing.”

Voters acknowledged incumbent Meg Moriarty’s successful tenure as the two-term chair of the School Committee by returning her to the board. Moriarty topped the three-person field for the two available three-year seats garnering 5,354 votes.

“[Winning] means I get to keep talking about all of our great students and it’s all about doing best for every single student in our schools,” Moriarty said at Town Hall Tuesday night after the results were read by Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman.

With her return to the School Committee, Moriarty will provide a continuity on the six member body “that helps tremendously” as it “helps keeps the momentum moving forward” on several of initiatives that Superintendent Jill Geiser has proposed.

Joining her on the committee will be first-time candidate Matt Kraft. The Brown University professor took home 5,176 votes, while recent Belmont High School graduate, current Emerson College student and Town Meeting member Angus Abercrombie collected 2,792 votes.

“I hope to take the opportunity to listen and learn both from my fellow school committee members and Belmont residents about our priorities and build on the three year strategic plan that the district is developing,” said Kraft who arrived to Town Hall with his wife and two kids after enjoying Taco Tuesday.

Speaking as the new body on the committee, “I think part of the hard work is to work collaboratively and collectively. And I look forward to those conversations that I know some will be difficult. But that’s the job. We all have a shared commitment towards strengthening our schools for all the students and in building towards, frankly, a brighter future.”

”People understood that experience is really important, and that running Town Meeting is very demanding. I’ve done it for all these years and voters felt that I had done well in the position,” said Widmer who announced earlier in the year that this term would be his final one as moderator.

Filling Spaces: Belmont Announces ‘New’ Asst. Super, A First CUE Leader, Extended Elementary Principals Search

Photo: The Belmont School District is filling leadership positions

The Belmont School District has taken the “interim” from assistant superintendent Lucia Sullivan’s title as the in-house candidate was hired to fill the post recently held by Janice Darias.

Sullivan’s appointment to the full-time post was one of two selections by Superintendent Jill Geiser in filling major leadership positions in the district over the past month. Sullivan’s promotion was hardly a surprise as she and Geiser have created an effective team after the superintendent arrived in Belmont this past July.

The second announcement was the appointment of Belmont educator Laura Smith as the first permanent principal of the Chenery Upper Elementary School – dubbed by the district as the “CUE” – which will take place July 1. Until then, Smith will continue serving as the CUE’s Elementary Curriculum Coordinator, a position she has held since September.

“I’m excited to step into the role of principal at the Chenery Upper Elementary School, the first leader of the school in its grades four, five and six configuration,” said Smith to the school committee on Feb. 28.

“One message came through really strongly to me is that Belmont really cares about education. And it was affirming to me to have the support of all of those community stakeholders,” Smith said. “I believe in open communication and collaboration; so, with that in mind, please, I encourage you to share your insights and concerns openly as we work together to build this new fourth to sixth [grade] school.”

Prior to coming to Belmont, Smith worked for two years as the district’s Literacy Coach in the Cambridge Public Schools. She brings previous experience as a Cultural Proficiency Facilitator (2015-2021, Cambridge Street Upper School), an Assistant Principal (2009-2015, Kennedy Middle School), and nearly a decade as a classroom teacher of English at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

She has a BA in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, a MEd degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she was honored as a James Bryant Conant Fellow, And she will soon be “Dr. Smith” as she anticipates earning a doctorate in Curricular Studies and Educational Leadership from the University of South Carolina sometime this year.

Still up in the air remains hiring principals at the Winn Brook and Burbank elementary schools in which the job postings remain open with interviews coming in the spring. Geiser told the committee the district is “still within the window” from January to the spring in which a larger candidate pool is emerging.

“There’s a lot of movement” among educators seeking new positions which places Belmont in “a good situation.”

Finally the hiring of an assistant principal at the Belmont Middle School (grades 7-8) is being led by BMS’s Principal Russ Kupperstein.

Belmont Town Election Ballot Set With Three Competitive Town-Wide Races And Two Big-Time Questions

Photo: The town election will take place on April 2

It’s official. Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman announced last week she had certified the candidates who will be on the ballot for the annual Town Election on Tuesday, April 2.

Voters will ponder over three competitive town-wide races with half of the eight Town Meeting precincts along with two big-time questions on the ballot.

In the race for the all-important town body, two well-known members of the town’s financial watchdog will take on an absolute newbie. Colleagues Geoff Lubien and Matt Taylor on the Warrant Committee are out campaigning along with newcomer Alex Howard.

There’s an exciting mix for two seats on the school committee. Incumbent and current chair Meg Moriarty is seeking to return for her second stint on the board. At the same time, first-time candidates for town-wide office, Gen Z Town Meeting member Angus Abercrombie and noted education economist and professor Matt Kraft, are in the three-person race.

In his first competitive race on the ballot in more than 15 years in the post, Mike Widmer will face former school and warrant committee member Mike Crowley for town moderator.

On the legislative side of the ballot, half of the eight precincts – in a weird coincidence, they are the first four precincts, 1-4 – have exactly 12 residents running for a dozen three-year seats. A single precinct, number 5, came up short with only ten on the ballot. Surprisingly, precinct 7, which historically had difficulty finding candidates, will have 14 running with five non-incumbents, while precincts 6 and 8 will have 13 seeking 12 seats. Some of the best races will be for several partial-term seats: three will be running for a single-year post in Precinct 1, with two campaigning for the seats in Precincts 6 and 8.

In many ways, it will be the ballot questions that will bring out the voters in April. The outcome of the $8.4 million Prop 2 1/2 override to supplement the capital budget and the town and school operating budgets – Question 1 – will have long-term consequences for town and school services as well as personal finances. There are advocacy committees for yes and no votes. The second question will change the elected board of assessors to an appointed one. That measure passed at the January Special Town Meeting.

The 2024-25 Belmont School Year Starts After Labor Day As Committee Approves Calendar

Photo: The 2024-5 school year calendar has been approved

Keeping with recent tradition, Belmont schools will open for the 2024-25 school year after Labor Day as the Belmont School Committee voted unanimously to start classes for first to 12th grade on Wednesday, Sept. 4, two days after the holiday.

There will be four recesses in 2024-2025:

  • Thanksgiving: Nov. 28-29.
  • Winter: Dec. 23 – Jan. 1.
  • February: Feb. 17-21.
  • April: Apr. 21-25.

As 2024 is a presidential year, schools will be closed on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Graduation for the class of 2025 will be held on Saturday, June 7.

The final day of the school year for K-11 will be Tuesday, June 24 which includes five “snow” days added. If schools are not postponed during the year due to the weather, the final day will be pushed up to Tuesday, June 17.

School Committee Race Gets Competitive With Incumbent, Newcomer In The Mix

Photo: Meg Moriarty and Matt Kraft

It’s now three candidates seeking two open seats on the Belmont School Committee in the annual Town Election as the incumbent chair of the committee and a prominent professor in education submitted the necessary papers to the Town Clerk this past week.

Meg Moriarty is seeking a second three-year term on the board. While in her initial stint on the board, Moriarty has been chair since April 2022, garnering praise from her colleagues on her leadership and collaborative skills when negotiating educators and staff contracts, navigating the district through two budget cycles, managed the transfer to the committee of the new Belmont Middle and High School and helping in the hiring of Dr. Jill Geiser as Superintendent of Belmont School District.

The mother of two who attend Belmont Public Schools, Moriarty runs MegMor Research and Evaluation which helps organizations assess the impact of Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) programming. The Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member matriculated at Brown and earned her master’s and doctorate in education (science education) from Boston University.

Newcomer Matt Kraft enters the Belmont political scene from academia as a leading scholar in education economics. The St. Louis native is an associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University with a focus on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in public schools. He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“I care deeply about Belmont public schools because my two children will be in the [Belmont schools] for the next decade,” Kraft said. The schools are at the heart of the town and I am excited tp serve and add a voice that brings experience and knowledge to addressing the challenges we face

Kraft received his B.A. from Stanford while earning a M.A. and doctorate from Harvard. Kraft taught 8th grade English as a long-term substitute teacher in Oakland, CA, while receiving his M.A. than teaching 9th grade humanities at Berkeley High School.

Moriarty and Kraft will join Emerson student Angus Abercrombie on the ballot for the annual Town Election being held on April 2.

Angus On The Run: Teen Town Meeting Member Seeks School Committee Seat

Photo: Angus Abercrombie, 19, has confirmed he will be running for school committee in the 2024 Town Election

In June 2022, Angus Abercrombie crossed the raised daïs at Harris Field to receive his high school diploma from Belmont High School in spirit; he was attending the Democratic Party’s State Convention that day as one would expect from an ambitious young man with his eyes on his political future.

If everything goes according to his plans, by June 2024, Abercrombie will be setting school policy, approving the school district’s multimillion budget, and negotiating with school unions – whose members only two years before were his teachers – as the 19-year-old Winn Street resident has announced his campaign for one of two seats up for grabs on the Belmont School Committee next year.

Abercrombie is the first person to submit a Statement of Organization of Candidate’s Committee with the Town Clerk’s Office (Nomination papers are still weeks away from being available). The Emerson freshman already has a campaign web page up and running and is active on X (formally Twitter), TikToc, Facebook, and Instagram, where Abercrombie is seen chummy with local, state, and national Democratic leaders.

A lifelong Belmont resident educated in the Belmont public schools, Abercrombie ran and was elected to Town Meeting in April, which at the time caught the attention of the Boston Globe. Since then, the Democratic Party activist has been featured in the Globe, WBZ-TV, and National Public Radio, which described him as one of a growing number of “Gen Z politicians pushing to become leaders of today.”

At first glance, dismissing the teenager as a passing fade would be to the challengers’ disadvantage. An energetic campaigner, Abercrombie topped Precinct 8 Town Meeting results with 544 votes, the second largest town-wide tally. He is a frequent participant at public, board, committee, and school meetings where he is gaining a reputation for thoughtful, engaging comments.

School Committee Chair Meghan Moriarty and Jamal Saeh are up for reelection in April 2024.

The Belmontonian interviewed Abercrombie after the 2025 Budget Public Forum at Town Hall.

You have submitted organization papers with the Town Clerk. Are you considering running for School Committee?

Abercrombie: Yes, I’ve decided to seek a seat on the School Committee.


Abercrombie: “[Belmont] is really at an inflection point. We’re about to ask voters for the biggest override ever, and we need to prove that we have the leadership to spend that money how it needs to allocated. I’ve attended our schools recently and I’ve watched the cuts get made to programs and increased fees that were imposed from when I was in kindergarten to the Winn Brook [Elementary] and the High School . I’ve watched every part of the school experience – not just in the classroom but also transportation issues, sports, activity fees – becoming tougher and tougher, especially for our families who don’t have the time and money to push for their kids outside of school. I want to advocate for them on the committee.

You’ve said you will bring the insight and interests of students to the school committee which, you’ve noted, is the largest constituency who doesn’t have the opportunity to be heard via the ballot box.

Abercrombie: Absolutely. There are a lot of students who have a deep attachment to this community. But the first time they’re actually able to vote on the issues that matter of this community, they’re often going ready to go off to college and university. That makes it really difficult for us to properly hear their voices and for the people who are in the halls of power to weigh those voices correctly.

What are the three main goals that you will bring to the school committee?

Abercrombie: Number one, we need to fix our long-term Special Education program with good wraparound services. Ensuring we are serving every student’s needs, and when possible and appropriate, keeping them in-district.

Number two, transportation. The way students get to school, right now, is unfeasible. It’s getting students to and from school in a climate conscious, low-traffic impact, and safe manner. And that also means pushing back school start times because student drivers who are tired are not safe drivers.

Number three is communication. Leveraging my background in campaigns, communications, and community organizing to better connect and engage families with school programming. We can’t allow students to fall through the cracks just because their parents don’t have time for what is sometimes a full time job; keeping up-to-date on in-school opportunities and needs.

You’re 19 and a full-time college student at Emerson. How do you respond to those who believe you lack the experience to take on the job?

Abercrombie: Well, last year at Emerson College, I ran the allocation of a $1.1 million budget. I did it. Everyone has spoken to has been happy about how that budget went down. Look, Belmont has six people on our school committee who bring different experiences, and we need to make sure that every part of the conversation about our schools is represented on our school committee. That includes parents, students, and people in the town who are not currently in either of those groups, but still deeply feel the effects of our school department. That’s why I’m running.

‘Milestone’: Building Committee Hands Ownership Of Belmont Middle And High School To School Committee, Town

Photo: The Belmont Middle and High School is now the property of the Belmont School Committee.

“It’s a fairly simple meeting,” Bill Lovallo said of Wednesday’s virtual joint get-together of the Belmont School and Belmont Middle and High School Building committees.

And while it was straightforward, the gathering marked the culmination of seven-and-a-half years of planning, construction, and 163 meetings as the Building Committee turned over the 450,000 sq. ft. 7th to 12th-grade building to the School Committee and the Town of Belmont.

“It’s a meeting about a building, but it’s really so much more than a building,” Meghan Moriarty, chair of the Belmont School Committee. “It’s a really exciting opportunity for us. I’m so excited for our educators and our students.”

“I’m very pleased to say that we’ve come to a milestone here,” said Lovallo.

In a series of three votes, the Building Committee accepted the building from Skanska USA, the project’s chief contractor, before officially transferring ownership of the largest building in Belmont to the School Committee and town.

“This is incredible,” said Lovallo as the $295 million school building opens for the six grades it was designed. “Seven and a half years since we started this project with the building committee, working collaboratively with the school committee … and school department on visioning, working on budgets, working on scope, working on messaging. We’re working on engaging our community time and time again, to do the best thing we can for Belmont with the resources that we have.”

Lovallo issued thanks to Skanska, the architectural design team from Perkins+Will, Owner’s Project Manager CHA Companies, the Belmont School District, and residents who supported the project.

“I’m very proud of what the community has done. I’m very proud of people stepping up, community members providing their input, and comments, the building committee, and others, listening, and then delivering on our commitment. So thank you,” said Lovallo.

One member of the building committee will be a beneficiary every day from the nearly decade long process. Belmont High teacher Jamie Shea called the building “an amazing space.”

Flexible spacing allows innovative teaching

“I’m so thankful that we have that space for teaching and learning for our students. I love my classroom with a moveable wall that allows me to teach an integrated class with a math teacher, which is great. The flexible spacing in the building is allowing teachers to innovate and try new things in ways that were really hard to do in the old building.”

Shea also heralded the work of Lovallo, veteran building committee member Pat Brusch, and recently retired superintendent John Phelan. “This only happened with the three of you. I can’t even imagine the number of hours you spent beyond all the meetings we were at to ensure this happened.”

The town’s Office of Community Development is granting the school committee a temporary occupancy permit (TCO), representing the school building is ready for educators/staff and students to enter the building, said Moriarty. The paperwork to allow the building to open will completed in the next days.

The building committee will identify any remaining work on the “punch” list to be completed, like training for bells, the Public Address system, HVAC, and the solar arrays.

“[Punch list] doesn’t affect life safety account for those types of things, but it does affect 100 percent completeness. So … as we turn the building over, our team will be continuing to work on that,” said Lovallo, “We expect that to take probably about two months from now to get all those items complete.”

One item that will take more time to complete will be the installation of more than 2,200 solar photovoltaic arrays on the building’s roof. Delays due to cost and engineering delays will hold up the final full production mode until February 2024, according to Lovallo.

“I’ll say right here that we have not changed our commitment to flooding the entire roof with – probably is not the best word to use for a roof, but covering the entire roof with PV and that has not changed,” said Lovallo.

Moriarty said the Building Committee would track that work, hold the construction team responsible, and finish up payment and financial issues with the Massachusetts School Building Authority with support from the Town Administrator’s Office. While the project is nearly completed, the Building Committee will continue until the financial closeout is complete, which will take up to 18 months.

A short ribbon-cutting celebration will occur on opening day for Belmont schools, Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 8:30 a.m. outside of the high school lunch area. The district is planning guided tours for families of middle schoolers, just as was done for Phase 1 – high school – of the building completion.

A larger, town-wide celebration will take place in October.

Geiser Selected Belmont’s Next School Superintendent; First Woman To Run District On Permanent Basis

Photo: Dr. Jill Geiser during a Q&A with Belmont residents

After, at times, a contentious selection process, the Belmont School Committee voted to appoint Belmont resident Dr. Jill Geiser as the school district’s next superintendent at a special meeting on Wednesday, March 29.

“[Geiser] accepted right away, enthusiastically,” said Committee Chair Meghan Moriarity when she called the Oxford Avenue resident with the news immediately after the 5-1 vote.

The selection of Geiser marks the first permanent female superintendent in Belmont. Dr. Patricia Aubin served as interim superintendent for one year between the superintendencies of Dr. Peter Holland and Dr. George Entwistle.

“It’s pretty remarkable that it’s taken this long!” wrote Moriarity in an email to the Belmontonian.

The other candidates were Kimo Carter, the assistant superintendent in Weston, and Carlee Simon, the former superintendent of schools in Alachua County, Fla.

Geiser replaces John Phelan, retiring after holding the post for the past decade. If both sides approve a three-year contract, Geiser’s tenure as leader of a district with approximately 4,400 students and nearly 283 FTE teaching positions will begin July 1. Moriarity said the district would hold “some events and opportunities for the community to get to meet her … even before July 1.

With a Belmont Police Officer stationed at the door of the Belmont Gallery of Art in the Homer Building and roughly a dozen in attendance, the committee spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the candidates’ credentials and reactions to their district visits in mid-March with committee members, teachers, students, and community members.

By the time the committee members spoke on what they believed were important for the district to advance in the next three years, it became clear the committee would be selecting from the pair of Belmontian candidates, Carter and Geiser.

When what would be the only straw poll was taken, Geiser received the first four votes from member Jamal Saeh, Katie Bowen, Moriarity and Amy Checkoway before Carter received the last two recommendations from Mike Crowley and Jeff Liberty.

Liberty spoke of Carter’s accomplishment in completely turning around the education proficiency and management of Watertown Middle School which he headed for 13 years.

Saeh also focused on leadership for his support of Geiser, relating to a reference who called the Billerica assistant superintendent “smart and battle tested … relentless about doing the best” … “and forged by fire” when she participated in two major system changes.

“At this point, Geiser is ready for Belmont,” said Saeh.

Checkoway said Geiser would have less of a transition in coming to Belmont, which Moriarity seconded, noting “she is really attuned to what’s going on in Belmont, the politics and how the town operates” and that “she shared values and beliefs that match our community.”

“She mentioned that if she were coming here, she would really want to reinforce and continue and celebrate what going on but also drive towards academic excellence and the experience of Belmont,” said Moriarity.

“It’s good to have somebody that has that vision for improvement on what we have.”

Liberty said a powerful reference for Carter that when responding to conflict, it was “never with anger.”

“That suggests a certain emotional maturity that one needs to have in this role,” said Liberty, who pointed to Carter’s complete turn around of Watertown Middle School as its principal for 13 years.

When the final vote was taken, Crowley switched his straw poll recommendation and voted for Geiser with Liberty the sole ‘no’ vote.

The vote ended what a portion of residents and those who participated in the selection exercise felt was a flawed process with many pointing to the school committee’s management of the process, which included an abbreviated time frame, questions of transparency and a conflict between the selection and school committees – both sides issued articles on the dispute – that resulted in heated comments online.

After the meeting was adjourned, Moriarity said while she was happy to defend the process, “I think there is evidence that there is still a lot of frustration in the district amongst parents. And that makes me sad. I was hoping that this process would really help bring the community together.”

“We really tired to gather as much feedback as possible and involve as many people in the visits,” said Moriarity, noting that a superintendent candidate survey was employed which nearly 200 people participated as well as the creation of vetting groups of various constituencies including students that advised the committee.

“I think there’s obviously still more that needs to be done and we need to play a role in that. I really hope that [Geiser] can help with that,” said Moriarity.

“I don’t dismiss their feelings at all. I really value their feelings. But I also don’t dismiss the process.”

Dr. Jill Geiser

About Jill Geiser

Joining the Billerica school system in 2017 as the assistant superintendent to Tim Piwowar (who, coincidently, was appointed the next superintendent in Westwood on Monday), Geiser was the principal of the Pre K-8 Healey School in Somerville from 2012. She also served as a middle school principal and high school assistant principal in the Lawrence schools. In addition, she is an adjunct professor at Boston College’s Lynch School, taught in Arizona and New York City, was a foreign language instructor in Thailand, and spent two years in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Geiser holds a doctor of education degree from Boston College and graduate degrees from the Teachers College at Columbia University and UMass/Boston. In addition, she enrolled at the University of Delaware where she earned a Bachelor of Arts.

Belmont’s School Committee Candidates: Amy Zuccarello [VIDEO]

Photo: Amy Zuccarello, candidate for Belmont School Committee

A Belmontian through and through: born, brought up, schooled, and now living in Belmont with her family, Amy Zuccarello is seeking one of two seats on the Belmont School Committee.

Who is Amy Zuccarello?

Amy Zuccarello is a person who gets things done. Amy is a Belmont mom of two who is committed to her family and her community and has always been a champion of Belmont’s public schools. She is a lifelong Belmont resident, a graduate of Belmont schools, and a bankruptcy and financial restructuring lawyer with 20 years of experience working with distressed companies and helping them rebuild. Amy is also the Belmont Girl Scouts service unit coordinator and a former Belmont POMS board member and officer.

Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?

I am the right candidate for Belmont right now. My background and skill set complements the skills and abilities of current committee members. I know that I can make an instant impact to help the town and the schools navigate the current fiscal challenges.  

What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?

I represent companies and other large stakeholders in distressed business situations – where resources are at a premium and there aren’t always enough funds for every item on everyone’s “wish list.”  As a trusted business advisor, it is my job to be able to use resources wisely.  I need to be creative and think outside the box to find ways to solve these problems.  I am also a fair, skilled negotiator.  I pride myself on navigating contentious situations while maintaining the balance between standing my ground on important issues and preserving a good working relationship with all sides going forward.  I also have significant experience working on committees of all types in various contexts.

Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?

In light of current inflation rates alone, I don’t think that this is realistic. The actual answer here depends on many factors we can’t know at the moment. For example, school enrollment isn’t something we can predict with certainty year over year. In addition, the town’s BEA contract contains cost of living increases at about 2.5 percent per year – so personnel costs – which comprise the largest single expense in the school budget – will increase by this amount alone year after year.  In addition, there are some big categories of costs set forth in the school budget that are not discretionary – including the cost of funding ESL programs and out-of-district special education placements.

Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?

Put simply, spend smart.  Whether an override passes or not, we need to maximize efficiencies where possible.  We need to review expenses carefully and be sure that we are asking our community to fund an override that will be sufficient to bring stability to the schools for the foreseeable future. We can only do this while being mindful that our citizens are unlikely to support an override that isn’t backed by reasonable assumptions about what we need to fund the schools sufficiently. If we can restore public confidence in managing the school budget, I believe that our citizens will be more inclined to support an override.

Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?

I will always prioritize maintaining funding for positions and services that directly impact student learning and well-being. My goal is to minimize disruption for students due to a budget shortfall.

Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?

I have been speaking with many students and families about Belmont’s approach to special education.  I think that we need to take a very close look at the number of students with out-of-district special education placements and assess whether Belmont can find ways to accommodate student needs in-district. We should capitalize on the availability of space that has been created by the construction of the new Belmont Middle High School and a decrease in district-wide enrollment to build a robust program to serve the needs of special education students in the district. By doing this, we will not only enable our Belmont students to remain in town with their siblings and neighbors, but we will also be able to control the costs of out-of-district spending on special education.

Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?

I will be available to work with my colleagues in many areas; however, I think that my legal background will make me an especially strong asset to the policy subcommittee.

What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?

I would like to explore changes to the schedule of fifth- and sixth-grade students at Chenery to provide for more recess/socialization time.

At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?

A Girl Scout’s mandate is to leave a place better than she found it. I will succeed if I can bring financial stability to our schools while maintaining academic excellence so that Belmont’s students can be assured of the best in public education for years to come.

Belmont’s School Committee Candidates: Rachel Watson [VIDEO]

Photo: Belmont School Committee candidate Rachel Watson

Born in a small town in Arizona, who went on to become a nurse, an attorney, and now an administrator and special education advocate, Rachel Watson is seeking election on the Belmont School Committee.

Who is Rachel Watson?

I moved to Belmont eight years ago when my oldest was two, and I was expecting my youngest. I am a single mom, a lawyer, a nurse, and a human resources administrator. My sons are now in fifth grade at Chenery and third grade in the LABBB program at Butler. This year, I am the co-chair of the Belmont Special Education Parent Advisory Council, and I was the chair of the Superintendent Screening Committee. I feel very fortunate to call Belmont home and raise my sons here. 

Why are you running for school committee, knowing just how challenging the next years will be for Belmont schools?

I am running for the school committee because thoughtful development of our special education program will be required to solve the budget issues facing our district.  As a mom to two children in special education, and SEPAC co-chair, I bring a unique perspective on the students and families that will be impacted as we make the needed changes to these programs.  As an attorney and a nurse, I also have the skills to quickly make sense of the regulatory framework that must be followed as we work to bring more special education programs in-district.  Currently, Belmont’s lack of in-district special education programs requires the placement of many students in costly and distant out-of-district programs.  Moving more special education programs in-district is key to alleviating the budget issues facing Belmont.

3.  What broad experiences do you have – that is not in your LinkedIn profile! – that will make you a good school committee member?

A school committee member needs to know how to communicate with and collaborate with our diverse and vibrant community.  My career has included working with colleagues, clients, and patients from all over the world and all walks of life.  I know how to communicate effectively with everyone, from hospital patients experiencing mental illness and homelessness on the streets of L.A. to administrative law judges deciding whether or not my client will have their cancer treatment covered. I have had to deliver the news to my Armenian patient’s family that their loved one had passed and interview Ugandan refugees about the torture they experienced at home as they sought asylum in Japan. I am no stranger to high-stakes conversations. I am able to understand the perspectives of those very different from me and effectively collaborate to solve problems.  

Many residents/boards and committees believe the Belmont school district historically asks for more funding annually than it needs. Can Belmont schools teach children at the level parents/the community expects if district budget increases are capped at average growth in town revenue of about 3 1/2 percent a year?

School budgets are unlike those of a business.  There are many factors in play that are difficult to predict.  For example, the number of students needing special education services rarely remains static, and the level of services they need also fluctuates.  If even two more students than predicted must be placed out-of-district, the transportation costs alone can easily run $20,000 annually.  Moreover, these services are federally mandated, and failure to provide the services adequately and promptly leads to expensive lawsuits. The failure to accurately predict these costs is a major cause of our current budget woes. Trying to cap budget increases will simply lead to continuing budget crises as we will not have enough money to invest in programs when we need to and then find ourselves in need of even more funds later. 

Belmont’s future will depend on a substantial override in 2024. As a committee member, what would you do to help navigate the schools over the next year to prepare for a yes or no vote?

As a school committee member, it will be on me to help effectively advocate for the override with the rest of the committee. I will work to explain the urgency of funding our schools to our entire community.  We must make it clear that our schools are underfunded and that the worst of the negative impacts on our children are being staved off by dedicated educators that are overwhelmed and overworked. The budget is complicated and not always easy to understand, but we must learn from past mistakes and make sure the necessity and wisdom of passing the override is clear.   

I also believe our community will support an override if we present a plan to use the funds from the override to invest in programs that will help control costs without sacrificing quality. Belmont residents shoulder a heavy tax burden and should know that these funds will be invested in ways that will help stabilize the school department’s budget. I would work with the administration and my fellow committee members to develop and present this to our community. The override cannot fail, or we will see larger class sizes, more struggling students slipping through the cracks, skilled and experienced educators being let go, and cuts of entire programs such as the currently proposed eliminations of the sixth-grade world language program and fourth-grade strings program. We should not allow such a decline in our schools.  

Which line items in the school budget would be your priority to protect while serving on the committee?

I think arguing over line items is counter-productive before I have the opportunity to work with the superintendent and the current school committee members to fully understand each line item. However, I would generally prioritize funding items that enhance our ability to identify student needs and serve them as early as possible such as kindergarten aides. The ability to prevent issues earlier in elementary school saves money in the long term, and better serves students. 

Do you have any ideas of your own or an existing plan that you support for providing outstanding care for Special Education students while also keeping a cap on expenses?

The district must do more than provide care to special education students; it must challenge them to reach their fullest potential in education.  The key to controlling costs is either working with the LABBB collaborative to expand programs housed in Belmont or developing our own in-district programs.  Currently, we have no in-district programs for students who need to learn outside the general education classroom.  We do have a few LABBB programs housed in Belmont school buildings, but these are shared with Lexington, Arlington, Bedford, and Burlington and cannot accommodate the demand for spaces in these programs.  

The result is that we must send far too many students to costly out-of-district programs and pay to transport them there.  The students must endure long commutes and their ability to be included in their own community is limited.  This is an equity issue and a strain on the budget.  By either expanding LABBB offerings in Belmont or developing our programs, we can increase accountability to families, increase inclusion in our schools, closely assess quality, and control costs.  

We must also thoroughly and proactively screen and evaluate students in their early elementary years, especially kindergarten. Then, if a student requires support, we must intervene aggressively. The earlier we supply support, the less likely students are to experience widening gaps in learning and development that are expensive to address and the more likely students are to feel competent in the classroom and achieve the academic excellence Belmont is known for.  The pandemic took a severe toll on students, and we can expect to see the impacts for years yet to come.  Making sure all of our students leave elementary school with the fundamental math and reading skills they need to succeed and social emotional skills needed to regulate themselves is imperative to maintaining the quality of our schools without having excessive increases in cost.   

Being a school committee member means more than working with finances. Which academic areas – curriculum, policy, etc. – will you focus on?

I would focus on policy.  As an attorney, I am interested in the interplay between state and federal regulations and how we set policy for our school district.  I realize I will have much to learn as a new committee member. However, I am accustomed to diving into new fields, learning from those more experienced than me, and adapting my skills to present needs. 

What is one change – big or small – in the six Belmont schools that needs to occur to make the education experience better?

We need a more child-centered school culture. An excellent example of what I mean by that is the recess issue at Chenery. Our fifth-grade students started this year only allowed recess time after they finished their lunch.  The lunch period is relatively short, so they often got as little as 3-5 minutes of recess daily, far short of the CDC-recommended 20 minutes daily. After months of parental advocacy, the administration has found ways to implement more recess time for fifth graders but has said there will still be no recess time for sixth graders next year. The school committee should hold the administration accountable for scheduling at least 20 minutes of recess daily for our fifth and sixth graders so they can work on their social skills and be more focused in class. When the school culture is welcoming, and lets kids be kids, academic and behavioral outcomes improve. 

At the end of your first term, by what measure will you know you have succeeded?

I have laid out ambitious ideas and know that change is rarely quick. First, I will measure my success by concrete progress toward specific goals. I think that if all the students at Chenery Upper Elementary School get at least 20 minutes of recess per day, I would know I have succeeded in moving the school culture toward a more child-centered one. If we have developed and implemented new special education programs either on our own or with LABBB in both the new Belmont Middle School and Chenery Upper Middle School, then I will know we are moving toward securing both quality special education and the long-term health of our school’s finances. However, success as a school committee and a school district is a team effort. My priorities are the ones our community has been telling me they are looking for leadership on, and I think the primary way I will measure my success is if those I serve will continue to look to me to collaborate in solving the issues we face in Belmont, large and small.