Latest Rink Configuration OK’d By School Committee; Tennis Courts Remain A ‘?’

Photo: The scheme approved by the school committee for a new skating rink in Belmont

The Belmont School Committee unanimously approved on Wednesday, May 12, the latest design scheme for a new skating/hockey rink located near the present location adjacent to Harris Field.

The joint meeting with the Belmont Select Board did not address a pair of vital issues that still require answers: how to find the $18 million to replace the dilapidated half century old rink, and how to resolve a consistent clarion call of the town’s tennis community seeking to squeeze five courts into a site already bursting at the seams.

“We do need to close this matter out and move the discussion forward. It’s not fair to anyone to just keep dragging it out and providing any group with any false expectations,” said Adam Dash, the Select Board chair who co-hosted the meeting with the School Committee’s Amy Checkoway whose committee controls the land use where the rink would reside.

Responding to a request from the town, Steven Stefton, lead of the sports and recreation practice of Perkins&Will’s Boston office, presented a trio of schemes in which the rink, parking, and three sports fields occupy the area west of Harris Field. In quick order, the most attractive of the plans had the single-sheet rink place adjacent to the commuter rail tracks and Harris Field, about 90 parking spaces with three sports fields occupying the remainder of the land.

Steven Sefton, Perkins&Will

The two-level 45,900 square-foot facility would top off around 35 feet tall. The rink’s program would be quite modest with locker rooms that would be available for hockey and teams playing at Harris Field. The site will also allow for a three sports field configuration with a limited amount of overlap. It would take 15 months to build – the shortest time frame of the three schemes – at a total cost of $20.3 million with a $2.25 million credit from the Middle and High School Building project.

“There’s a myriad of opportunities with this design that we think we could really create a high-performing facility in the future. And then ultimately it’s the most cost-effective solution that can be phased easily,” said Stefton.

Checkoway said while the committee does have a preference on design, it will be necessary to “at some point figures out a way to finance it.”

“This [meeting] is really about holding a place for a potential new rink at some point in the future,” said Checkoway.

But for many of the 100 residents on the virtual meeting, the topic on the top of their agenda was finding some way to place five tennis courts on the site. Belmont High was once the home of ten courts – located on the northeast side of the existing building – before construction began on the new Middle and High School.

A decision in 2017 by the Middle and High School Building Committee in consultation with Perkins&Will (the architects of the new school) eliminated the courts in favor of new fields and parking on the site. In January 2020, the School Committee reiterated the earlier action with a promise to add courts at the nearby Winn Brook Playground.

Dash noted the select board and school committee devised a compromise in which an extra court would be built at the Winn Brook to allow the varsity tennis teams a “home” facility, albeit without changing and restrooms. The Community Reinvestment Committee will present a proposal to Town Meeting in June to pay for a single court at the playground for a total of five.

Not feeling heard

But even with a partial solution at the Winn Brook, “there are a lot of tennis players in town, tennis parents that feel disenfranchised,” said Select Board member Mark Paolillo.

Those advocating a return of courts to the school’s site gravitated towards two possible options, one of which would reduce the number of parking spaces from 90 to approximately 20 and install the courts close to Concord Avenue.

The School Committee’s Mike Crowley said with the need to deal with the climate crisis and for more sustainable approaches to transportation, “I don’t know that I want to see those students driving to school. So I’m looking at that space, I’m seeing tennis court potential.”

Planning Board Chair Stephen Pinkerton was then recognized who said while “it’s aspirational” to limit student driving, the reality is if those drivers are coming and if they can’t find parking at the school, they will on side streets.

Any attempt to reduce parking would require tampering with the agreement between the school district and the Planning Board on parking at the new school. As part of the Site Planning Approval encompassing the entire project, an agreement was reached where the project would have 400 parking spaces with 90 of those spaces located west of Harris Field, a settlement Pinkerton said was hammered out with numerous parties – residents from nearby neighborhoods, transportation groups – involving long and at times contentious dialogue.

In an apparent compromise that would return the high school tennis teams on campus, Select Board member Mark Paolillo raised the point of the need for a junior varsity baseball field west of the campus.

“Can we program around JV baseball so that we can get the tennis courts on the campus,” said Paolillo, noting the popularity of tennis and the removal of half the courts’ town-wide in the past decade.

“It seems strange to me that there are junior varsity fields on the campus and yet we can’t get a varsity sport on the campus and yet we can’t get a varsity sport on the campus,” said resident Lou Miller.

Town and school officials said removing baseball isn’t that simple due to the lack of an appropriately-sized baseball field in town. Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator and recreation director, said moving the JV team to another field “would have a ripple effect” on the high school and town sports teams as it would require altering small diamonds into “90-foot fields” – referring to the number of feet between bases on the standard adult playing grounds – which would affect the playing choices for regional and town baseball teams.

After the committee voted to OK its favorite scheme, it appears a formally installed working group to established to find answers to financing, parking, and land use will be a result of the meeting.

Pink Slips For Seven Belmont Teachers/Staff As School Committee Approves ’22 Budget

Photo: Chair Amy Checkoway led the Belmont School Committee in the fiscal ’22 school budget process

Seven educators and staff – mostly teaching kindergarten – will receive pink slips Friday, May 14, as the Belmont Public Schools finalized $2.1 million in cuts to balance its fiscal year 2022 budget.

“These are real staff that work with us right now,” said Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan at the School Committee’s virtual meeting on Tuesday, May 11. At the end of the presentation, the six member committee unanimously approved the $66.2 million budget which will go before Town Meeting in June for its approval.

Two kindergarten teachers, a pair of kindergarten classroom assistants, a first grade educator, the fourth grade “bubble” classroom teacher and the high school librarian will be let go on Friday.

Belmont Under Austerity

Yet the damage to the Belmont Public Schools isn’t as bad as in the first version of the budget in the aftermath of the defeat of the $6.2 million override in April. In one instance, a total of four existing FTE (full-time equivalent) positions earlier on the chopping block – a math, world language and band/music teachers at the Chenery, and the community service coordinator slot and the now open librarian slot – were saved although the librarian and community service posts will be repurposed by the high school principal to classroom teachers in order to address rising class sizes.

Eight of approximately eleven scheduled new hires – the majority set to alleviate overcrowding at the middle and high schools in the 2021-2022 school year – have been eliminated. But two special education elementary school team chairs were reinstated after the school committee made “a clear, strong indication” said Phelan that these long-time needs were critical in the coming post-COVID years. One of the chairs will be funded using a portion of the district’s annual Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Federal Special Education Entitlement Grant – usually in the range of $125,000 – and freeing up $81,500 to be used elsewhere.

“It just makes sense that we capitalize on that existing idea,” said Phelan. Committee member Meghan Moriarty said that “through some creativity we have the opportunity to hire one for a grant and I … do feel like these positions not only respond to a current need but they are positions that help to build to build some infrastructure that is needed in this department.”

There is a big add this coming school year with the hiring of a district wide equity director. Several parents and residents lobbied the committee to reinstate the position. It also appears the position could be either shared or budgeted completely by the town according to Belmont Town Administrator Patrice Garvin who spoke about such an arrangement on Monday.

The need for the new position is related to claims of incidents of racism are on the rise in Belmont, the chair of the town’s Diversity Task Force Kimberly Haley-Jackson told last Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. “If we want to grow into the equitable and inclusive place it claims to be, I’m asking the school committee to support this position.”

The result of fewer teachers will be higher class sizes in Belmont’s six schools. While the Chenery Middle School is right at the edge of its recommended limit of 24-25 students in each class room while over at the high school which is seeing a large wave ranging from 29 to 33 in social studies and even higher for science.

Sports, extra curriculars in the cross hairs

While there were serious discussion early in the budget reduction process that targeted district athletics and its $1.1 million budget line, Phelan and the committee decided to keep reductions to sports and the large number of clubs, arts groups and extra curriculars at a minimum.

“There’s no better way to connect to the high school than by taking part in a club, an activity or an athletic team. We are try to put as many opportunities out to our freshmen in all of our students to plug in, in this year of any year, when students need to be helped,” said Phelan.

While all high school freshmen and middle school sports survived the budget axe, varsity and junior varsity scrimmages, an equipment manager will be dropped while all new equipment and uniform replacement were cut in half. In addition, the retirement of Jim Davis, the long-time athletic director and head of physical education, will allow the district to hire a part-time interim director this year at a hefty salary cut while restructuring the position for fiscal year 2023.

In visual and performing arts, the small chamber groups at the middle school and the marching band color guard are cut while stipends for the science Olympiad, Belmontian Club, and debate club are gone. The annual Washington DC trip which has been a highlight for eighth graders has been zeroed out.

In the remaining budget line items, money for substitute teacher is trimmed by $80,000 and custodial overtime reduced by $20,000. This year, a total of $270,000 in revolving accounts will be will be transferred to the school’s general fund while $117,000 in texts, material, supplies, expenses and travel will be slashed. The technology department will be level funded with a cut of $35,000 while the district’s contract allowance was reduced by $300,000.

After the committee’s vote ended the most strenuous school budget process in many years, Chair Amy Checkoway told her colleagues that “this process will not end tonight and I’m sure we’ll continue to be talking about budgets starting next week in various ways.”

Wishin’ and Hopin’: While School District Finalizing Cuts, Optimism Remains That Federal Monies Will Save The Day

Photo:

When Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan was asked earlier this month by the School Committee to “think creatively” in finding ways to fill a $2.1 million chasm in the school’s fiscal year 2022 budget, he need only look back one year for a successful template to the problem at hand.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly interrupted last year’s budget process, Phelan – speaking before the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, April 27 – noted how the district was able to rely on an emergency injection of dollars from Washington DC to allow the schools to keep teachers while moving to a remote and then hybrid education model.

Belmont in Austerity

“We used financial support from the federal government to be able to service the district as best we could,” said Phelan. This year “[w]e’re hoping to do something very similar with fiscal ’22”, by using federal grant money to close a deficit created after residents rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote at April’s Town Election.

But rather than submit to the committee a single fiscal blueprint going into next year, Phelan presented two separate avenues the budget could travel to Town Meeting for a June vote: the current fiscal ’22 operating budget with $2.1 million in cuts and lost positions and several ambitious budgets in which federal funding is used.

“We’re going to explain the budget in two different segments,” said Phelan. “We want to make for sure that there’s a clear distinction in all our minds as to our operating budget … and using one time money to support students and teachers next year.”

School Committee Budget Community Forum

Please join the Belmont School Committee and Administrators for an opportunity to ask questions regarding the Fiscal Year 2022 School Budget.

Tuesday May 4, at 6:30 PM

Please click the link below to join the webinar by computer, tablet or smartphone:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82730714204

Under a sub headline he called “bad news,” Phelan presented the committee the difficult reductions in what he has long said “makes many students want to come to school”: extra curriculum activities including athletics and the arts.

In sports, $200,000 would be saved with the elimination of ninth-grade teams and cuts up and down the budget – not replacing worn uniforms, reduction in travel expenses, playing only the minimum number of league games – while fully a third of visual and performing arts clubs (four at the Chenery and ten at the High School) would be dropped saving $28,000. Finally, approximately a quarter of a million dollars would be taken from associated revolving funds which totals up to $418,000.

Supplies – the pencils, copier paper and electronics – the necessary day-to-day stores for a school to function efficiently will see significant reductions, from $5,000 to $7,000 at each elementary school to $17,000 at the high school and $18,000 at the Chenery for a total of $57,200.

While the majority of the committee suggested even greater cutbacks targeting sports and the arts could be coming in the near future, Committee Chair Amy Checkoway and newly-elected committee member Meghan Moriarty sought to keep the cuts to a minimum.

“I’m pretty concerned about cutting all freshmen sports in the high school, my sense is that ninth grade is a particularly stressful time academically and with that transition,” Checkoway said, while Moriarty pointed out that athletics and clubs are where “kids are gaining confidence, they learn life-long skills from these endeavors … and how to work together in a band and on a team” suggesting that any major cuts be delayed by a couple of years.

The reductions announced Tuesday are on top of the 11 total FTE reduction of existing staff Phelan provided at the last School Committee meeting two weeks ago. Those salaried reductions – making up 75 percent of the total school cuts – included four elementary teachers, one each from the Middle and High schools as well as a slew of administrator and teacher aides, totaling $635,000. A final determination on the specific teacher and staff member who will be made redundant will be determined next week.

But before those specific reductions are made public, 24 staff and administrative positions that supported the district’s COVID efforts will be pink-slipped on Friday, April 30 while 22 will return to their previous teaching and staffing slots.

Phelan’s “good news” is the possibility of sources of federal funds and any increase in state aid coming from the state legislature above Massachusetts Gov. Baker’s submission that could ease the pain of filling the deficit. He pointed to successfully using federal money last year in fiscal ’21 to pay for the one-year COVID related position and services.

Two sources of funds coming from Washington directed only to schools are the second and third installment of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – known as ESSER funds – in which Belmont is in the process of applying for $1.4 million. Both funds have strict criteria; expenses have to apply to academics and instruction, address unfinished teaching and learning, and social emotional support to address mental health and well being to name a few.

Priority COVID services in ’22

Phelan and the committee have long sought to allocate ESSER II and III money to pay for anticipated services in the COVID related expenses in fiscal ’22. Those items – which Phelan called priorities totaling $876,000 – include:

  • Hiring teachers, aides and supplies to run an “academic recovery” summer school to service all grades ($100,000)
  • Adding a pair of nurses ($163,000),
  • Two social workers for mental health and social emotional learning ($163,000), and
  • Beefing up remote education with teachers, specialists and other material ($450,000)

There are a slew of other costs such as COVID testing, personal protective equipment and the “wedding” tents at each school to allow for outside classes and lunch.

But by only funding the four COVID priority items and redirect money from areas that may not longer be needed – the school committee could determine to eliminate an aggressive testing plan – Phelan indicated the schools would split the hoped for $1.4 million giving $750,000 to the COVID expenses and using $650,000 to restore three FTE positions at both the High and Middle schools as well as filling three Special Education slots.

While rearranging the ESSER funds will allow for the retention of a handful of positions, the greatest wish from the school committee is to get its hands into the most recent pot on money coming Belmont’s way. The American Rescue Plan Act signed in March by President Biden will provide the town upwards of $7.2 million which several committee members and the leaders of the No Override campaign are hopeful the ARP guidelines are loose enough to allow the town – which will receive the funds – to provide the schools with additional monies to apply to the district’s bottom line.

If federal regulators do determine the ARP funds can be optioned whatever way the town wishes, Phelan said he would work with Town Administrator Patrice Garvin to find a way to pay for all COVID costs, fill the $2.1 million fiscal ’22 deficit which will reverse the pink slips to the 11 teacher positions set for next month while restoring the 12 new FTE educator and staff slots which Phelan was anticipating to hire (for $870,000) until the override failed before sitting down and figure out a strategy for using the remaining change over the next two years.

But Phelan readily admits that it remains unknown if – and that is a big “if” – the federal government will allow any or all of the three funding sources to be used beyond reimbursing expenses directly impacted by the COVID pandemic. For example, under the ARP, Belmont can use the funds “to support the public health response and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable economic recovery” by providing “assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, aid to impacted industries, and support for essential workers” and “invest in infrastructure, including water, sewer, and broadband services.” There is no language currently that allows any portion of the $7 million to be transferred for school aid.

A second concern of using any federal funds or additional state aid to save educators positions – a worry championed by Geoffrey Lubien of the Financial Task Force – is that one-time funds are just that, money whose funding cycle ends after a single year and isn’t renewed. Phelan acknowledged that any additional position that could be saved in the coming fiscal year would need to be terminated on the final day of the 2022 school year.

“It’s important to me to say this out loud because when we start to talk about next school year and the potential use of federal funds … those dollars will only be one time dollars and they would not be able to carry into future years,” said Phelan.

But Phelan said despite the limited time frame of those funds, if allowed, he would hire teachers and administrators just for that one year, saying it is similar to someone who has crashed their car and despite having another vehicle ready to go “not using it for the year,” he said.

“We could use any of these (federal) dollars to support some parts of our school for the next year, even if we have to make layoffs in other areas,” said Phelan. “We just have to be flexible.”

Checkoway Named School Committee Chair. Vice Chair? Let’s Wait On That

Photo: A Zoom capture of Amy Checkoway

Amy Checkoway was unanimously elected chair of the Belmont School Committee at its organizational meeting a week after the Town Election. She takes over the reins of the six member board from Andrea Prestwich.

An education policy researcher for a large international consulting firm, Checkoway enters her third year on the committee having won a seat in 2019.

“I’m really committed to building and fostering really strong working relationships with all members of the committee, with our town leaders and perhaps most importantly with our community,” said the Pequossette Road resident, adding there is also a need to improve the committee’s governance structure, decision making and communications.

“I don’t think I have all the answers. I recognize what a challenging time this is, and the trust that needs to be repaired on many fronts,” she told the committee.

Newcomer Meg Moriarty was named the committee’s secretary.

A request to create the position of vice chair to the committee never got a chance to be voted as the committee decided to spend the fortnight between gatherings to allow the proposal to sit and wait.

Committee member Mike Crowley noted the need for the new post was necessary due to the avalanche of work Prestwich undertook during the height of the pandemic without a designated second in line to help manage it.

“The role of the chair in ordinary times, it can be an overwhelming amount of workload,” said Crowley. “It would be very helpful to be able to share the work that the chair currently has as their responsibility in order for this committee to be more effective,” said Crowley.

Prestwich, who led the committee for nearly the past year, said it was not just the volume of work but also the wide range of meetings – executive, negotiating, finance – that requires coverage.

While the vice chair position would be similar to the Select Board’s post, Moriarty wondered if anyone would wish to undertake the position noting that no one was eager to step into the secretary’s role – Moriarty was nominated for the role and accepted after one member deferred and the four remaining members were left quietly eyeing the others resembling a scene from the western “Deadwood.”

“That’s a very fair point,” said Checkoway.

While she acknowledges the need for the position, member Kate Bowen felt it would be helpful to have clearer guidance about the leadership roles and spreading the authority.

While Crowley pointed to an urgency to vote to add the vice chair position since the burden and volume facing the chair remains considerable, the measure was tabled as there are two new members who weren’t involved in previous dialogue, and despite having been discussed in the past, some agreed with an obscure parliamentary point that it wasn’t listed as an item in past meeting agendas.

Town Election: A Big ‘No’ On Override; School Committee Incumbents Swamped By Populist Pair

Photo: Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman announcing Town Election results.

In the biggest – and far reaching – decision of the 2021 Belmont Town Election, voters defeated a Proposition 2 1/2 override by approximately 1,000 votes, 4,539 to 3,526; a repudiation of the three year $6.4 million fiscal package targeted to fill the growing structural deficit that has been haunting the town’s finances for more than a decade.

Tuesday’s night results – read from the Town Hall steps by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman at 9:35 p.m., Tuesday, April 6 – was just one of a number of results suggesting the populous was seeking change in how governance is conducted in the Town of Homes.

Roughly 47 percent of voters cast ballots – a total of 8,271 voting – which is slightly less than the 51 percent (8,607 votes) which participated in 2015, the last time Belmont went to the polls to decide an override.

For unofficial results, head over to the Town Clerk’s webpage and the 2021 election.

“Voters have clearly decided not to go forward with this override now but the problems that we face as a town are not going to go away,” said Nicole Dorn, who chaired the ‘Yes for Bemont’ campaign.

“We are disappointed, but most of all we are concerned about the future of Belmont. As both our elected leaders and the professionals who oversee our budget have indicated: Belmont residents should expect a tough few years ahead,” said Dorn.

In the crowded field for Belmont School Committee, a pair of populists – Meghan Moriarty and Jamal Saeh – handily defeated the two current members, Tara Donner and Evelyn Gomez, and challenger Tim Flood.

Running on a platform that first surfaced on a local Facebook page where parents believe children were not being served by the actions of the Belmont School Department during a world-wide pandemic, education consultant Moriarty (3,838 votes) and pharmaceutical executive Saeh (3,989) struck a nerve with a portion of residents who felt aggrieved by a perceived lack of movement by the district and School Committee in opening schools full-time.

With their defeat Tuesday, the school committee loses its only active teacher in Donner (1,995 votes) and with Gomez (2,355), a champion of advancing racial and cultural diversity in her single year on the committee.

In another surprise, first-time candidate Adrienne Allen defeated incumbent Stephen Fiore, current chair of the Belmont Board of Health, by a margin of 117 votes, 3,067 to 2,950.

Another office holder, the venerable candidate Tomi Olson was defeated by veteran campaigner Anne Mahon by nearly 950 votes for a five-year seat on the Belmont Housing Authority.

And Mark Paolillo will be back on the Select Board for his fourth three year term after winning unopposed.

Town Meeting Results

Some surprises on the Town Meeting front as two long-time members in Precinct 6 – Joel Semuels and Robert Reardon – the chair of the Board of Assessors – lost the 12th seat to first-timer Marie Warner, head of Citizens for a Fiscally Responsible Belmont, who managed the “No” campaign against the override.

Over in Precinct 3, newcomer A. Ayodeji Baptista impressively topped the ballot with 463 votes.

There will be three Town Meeting members who will be joining the approximately 300 member group via write-in ballots from Precinct 7.

A Request For Your Vote: Tara Donner, School Committee

Photo: Tara Donner is the incumbent in the race for a seat on the Belmont School Committee

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

All students deserve an excellent education. 

This last year has created unprecedented challenges, tremendous inequities, and unparalleled obstacles for the education system beyond any we have known. 

I am running for re-election to the Belmont School Committee because my role as an active public school educator teaching in the COVID environment, a BPS parent, a long-time Town Meeting Member, and an experienced School Committee member give me a unique perspective to move the Belmont Public Schools forward now and post-pandemic.

An effective School Committee member needs not only passion and ideas, but also the experience and skills to translate that passion into action. From my time growing up in Milton when I served as the student representative to the School Committee and as a 21 year-old Town Meeting Member, through my 17 years teaching middle school, and in my 20 years in Belmont, including 14 as a Town Meeting member, I’ve cultivated deep perspective about the needs of a student-centered school system. My work as a teacher during COVID is paramount to my understanding of the challenges students are facing, and their broad range of pandemic experiences. Supporting students in a virtual learning environment gives me the skill set to listen effectively to all voices, including the quiet ones, and to seek out those voices that don’t feel empowered to speak up. 

The School Committee is facing many challenges. We must support the school department in executing a full return to in-person school over the next several weeks, while maintaining a meaningful remote learning program for families that need it. Even after the upcoming transition to full in-person learning, important work remains. The needs of each student will be larger than ever before, and it will take the careful oversight by experienced educators to make sure the district has a comprehensive plan of targeted support for each student. We must ensure summer school recovery programming is ready for students who have struggled this year. We must make sure that plans for the in-person opening of school for next year are educationally sound, as well as COVID-safe. 

Despite the scale of immediate concerns, we cannot lose sight of the non-pandemic educational vision for our district so that we continue to build 21st century skills in our learners. 

  • We need to decolonize our curriculum and establish a fully inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist community. The Equity Subcommittee, which I co-founded, is a good start. I’d like to continue what we started: completing the district Equity Audit, partnering with a wider range of community members, and making sure our teaching staff reflects the diversity of our community and wider world. 
  • Though we successfully eliminated full-day kindergarten fees this year for the first time since the program’s inception, our fees for music, athletics, transportation, and other activities remain quite high. I’d like to make further progress reducing the undue burden of fees on families with school-age children. 
  • We need to ensure after-school care is fully available for any family who needs it. The after school care programs have struggled tremendously during COVID, and the School Department must work with them so families have access to the after school care they need. 
  • The Chenery Middle School solar array installation must be completed as one piece of the school department’s role in meeting Belmont’s Climate Action Goals. 

My School Committee service has given me specific knowledge about the challenges our schools face. We need to pass the override, AND we need to resolve the structural funding deficit that limits the resources needed to educate our students and support the entire community with needed services. My years serving on Town Meeting give me a deep understanding of the budgetary needs of all the departments in town and the ways in which many of the services our town provides for all ages are impacted by limited funding. Diversifying our income stream as a town is critically important so that we can fully fund our schools and seniors can afford to stay in their homes. 

None of this is easy. With your vote, I will continue to devote myself to these goals as I have for the last three years. I would be honored to have your vote on April 6th.

A Request For Your Vote: Meg Moriarty, School Committee

Photo: Meg Moriarty is running to fill a seat on the Belmont School Committee

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

The Belmont School Committee has lost the trust of the community. Since the COVID crisis began last year, they have been discussing options and obstacles instead of prioritizing learning. If there are problems, the School Committee must solve them. It must act to provide the best possible education for our children.

I am running for School Committee because I want to restore trust in the School Committee by solving the problems facing Belmont. I want to do this by engaging and being transparent with the community and by making our children’s education our highest priority. My experience in managing budgets, working with teachers and students of all abilities and cultural backgrounds, assessing educational programs, and serving as Butler PTA president and a Town Meeting Member makes me a strong candidate for the position.

The School Committee must also do its part to address Belmont’s fiscal crisis. It must identify and cut inefficiencies and collaborate with other town committees. And it must explain to the Belmont community how it uses town financial resources to fulfill its mission of educating our students.

Parents, friends, and former School Committee members have encouraged me to run because of my deep involvement in educational issues as a parent, volunteer, and owner of a small education consulting business. For three years, I served on the Butler PTA, including two years as president, where I worked with other parents, teachers, and administrators to build a strong community. I understand school and town concerns and our financial constraints. And as owner of an education research and evaluation business, I have experience planning, creating partnerships, and budgets. 

In addition, I have more than twenty years’ experience in the Massachusetts education community and a doctorate in education. Early in my career, I ran a Boston University science outreach program for middle and high school students that served dozens of Massachusetts school districts. Later, at the Museum of Science in Boston, I wrote grants and managed outreach programs for underrepresented students and teacher professional development. Today, I teach best teaching practices to MIT graduate students and I own and run an education research and evaluation business, consulting for school districts, universities, and private organizations. I will bring these skills and experience to the School Committee.

Our School Committee has not responded to the COVID-19 crisis with urgency or vision. Last May, school committees in nearby towns began planning for students to return to school, declaring that they could not wait for guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to get kids safely back in school. They presented preliminary re-opening plans in July and August. Other Massachusetts school districts created remote learning academies with administrators and teachers dedicated to teaching remote students. In contrast, the Belmont School Committee voted to start with remote instruction in September and it appears they are moving to full in-person learning for students only in response to orders from DESE. Their delayed planning has forced students who must remain remote due largely to health reasons into classes taught by new teachers.

Our students have suffered academically and emotionally because of the School Committee’s inability to act and its broken decision-making process. Throughout this year, families and teachers have learned of decisions through last-minute emails about scheduling. The School Committee also oversaw elimination of the Chenery Middle School math acceleration program without explaining upfront why the program was eliminated. School Committee meetings have lacked open discussion and debate among the members, making it difficult for the community to discern why they vote in favor or against these issues. 

Any decision affecting our students should be made after careful consideration of complete and correct data, community input, and open debate. Rather than engaging in open debate, consulting with neighboring school committees, learning best practices, or implementing effective plans, the Belmont School Committee continued to study, propose, and discard new schedules without implementing them. These delays have hindered teachers’ abilities to respond to the academic and social emotional needs of our students.  

Belmont has always supported its schools. It deserves a School Committee that preserves and enhances that tradition in a transparent, respectful, and decisive manner. I ask for your vote on Tuesday, April 6.

Meg Moriarty, Candidate for School Committee

www.electmegmoriarty.com

A Request For Your Vote: Timothy Flood, School Committee

Photo: Tim Flood is running for school committee

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

My name is Timothy Flood and I am a candidate for the Belmont School Committee.  I currently serve as Co-Chair for the Belmont Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC), a member of the Belmont Age Friendly Advisory Council, and previously a member of the Chenery Middle School PTO. I differentiate myself as a military veteran, a local small business owner, and a NO vote NOW on Question 1.

As a SEPAC chair, my goals are centered around advocating for all our students’ free appropriate public education (FAPE) and supporting their families as best I can. I am running for school committee to continue to be an outspoken advocate for providing necessary resources to support our students, particularly our special needs students. If elected, these students will finally have a voice at the table that has long been absent. As a School Committee member, I would strive to ensure all our students excel academically, emotionally and socially, and that they are taught in safe and caring environment, whether online or in-person. 

As parents, we know our children best and act as their teachers, advocates, and cheerleaders. I understand firsthand what it feels like to fight for my child’s education. Recently I was told “my child is benefitting from a ‘safety net’ of out of district services.” Yet, I fought for 13 years to get the school system to support my child’s basic educational needs, to allow equitable access to the curriculum as per FAPE and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). I do not want parents to feel as dejected and alone as I felt over the years simply trying to obtain my daughter’s basic rights. I do not want parents to have to fight to ensure their children receive the most basic supports. Public education is a promise of equal educational opportunity that allows all children to thrive.

My most successful professional and personal experiences are built on teamwork. Teamwork and diverse leadership experiences are the foundation for the good decision making that is needed on the School Committee. I appreciate open, thoughtful dialogue with varying viewpoints, even if critical.  I will make lines of communication with all parents my priority.  These conversations allow me to continue to learn, understand new perspectives, and make decisions that reflect our community. 

I am keenly aware that my opposition to the override on the ballot this April appears to put me in a contradictory position with my history of advocacy for special education students. Let me be clear, I do want to increase the school budget to better support all our students, as well as our teachers, and believe this is necessary for our future. However, I am genuinely concerned with the town-wide implications of the proposed override. As an example, at the November 19, 2019 School Finance Subcommittee meeting, $1.7 million was moved from the special education reserve allocation to help offset the town budget deficit to strengthen the town’s bond rating; the motion made and voted on without public comment. Replenishing this money in the school budget is included in the current override. I find it inexcusable that this kind of horse trading occurred, was swept under the rug, and that the town is now asking taxpayers to make up for their mismanagement while describing it as extra support for our schools. 

This override does not give additional funding to special education, it is merely asking taxpayers for what was already taken.  I have put in much time to research and understand the override and its benefits and drawbacks. This override effects our entire town, not only our schools. While I believe an override in necessary to correct the town and school’s financial course, this is simply not the right time and more work needs to be done to guarantee any override proposal truly supports the town.

Disagreements should not influence our unwavering support for our children’s education. I will work tirelessly and thoughtfully, to represent our entire educational community.  I am not afraid to ask hard questions, to speak out, while understanding the importance of listening. We need to be the leaders of today our children aspire to become tomorrow.  

Thank you for your support.

Timothy Flood, candidate for School Committee

A Request For Your Vote: Evelyn Gomez, School Committee

Photo: Evelyn Gomez is running to retain her seat on the Belmont School Committee:

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

I am running for the school committee because I believe that every child deserves an education that develops their full potential. I was appointed to the school committee last June during the most disruptive public health and education crisis we have seen in generations. These months have felt like a trial by fire, but I have emerged more committed than ever and armed with the experience necessary to move our school district forward. I am seeking election to my first full term on the school committee to continue the work of making our district more transparent, equitable, and innovative.   

Since my appointment last summer, I aimed to communicate with empathy and transparency to help families adjust to the ever-changing conditions of this crisis. I quickly recognized that communication during a crisis is critical and actively worked to open dialogue between the school committee and the community. These are the concrete actions I took to improve communication and transparency:

  1. I held open office hours. When I proposed to hold a series of school committee sponsored roundtables with families this summer, I was told that was outside of my official duties. Undeterred, I started offering open office hours as an individual, including listening sessions with students. Later, the school committee came to realize the benefit of these and adopted the practice after all.
  2. I pushed for systematic data-collection. I advocated for district wide surveys to form a more complete picture of what families actually wanted from their schools and what students needed, rather than guessing as to what those needs might be.
  3. I advocated for parent and student voices in our decision making processes. Our community has volunteered their time, skills, and resources to help the district navigate the challenges of the pandemic. In the Fall, I convened parents to help inform my decision making process around health metrics and transmission mitigation strategies, and provide insight into how the committee weighed their options. 

Family engagement has never been higher and I want to focus this energy into positive change for our schools. Given our increasingly diverse student population, we have the opportunity to be proactive, keep parent engagement high, and actively seek out the voices that are often left out of decision making. I acknowledge that my decisions had a direct impact on thousands of students and families across our community; I feel that weight every day. I am willing to learn from my mistakes. Without increased transparency, we erode trust and goodwill with the community we represent.

As the child of immigrants and an English Language Learner, I am uniquely positioned to bring about the changes our schools need. I will focus on improving the educational experiences and outcomes for all of our children, with a particular focus on providing equal access to opportunities for all students. 

This is why I spearheaded the creation of the school committee’s new Equity Subcommittee in my first three months, with the goal of dismantling the systems that deny access to opportunities for some students and to bring accountability to a school system that is currently not serving all students equitably. Our district will soon initiate a district-wide equity audit to closely examine the systems and decision points that lead to inequity in students’ access to opportunities. 

As an engineer, I am trained to solve problems and make data-driven decisions. I firmly believe that decision-making is an iterative process and am committed to revisiting decisions when new data is available. I am an innovative thinker and bring a refreshingly new set of insights to the challenges we face in our schools. Since my appointment, I have proven that I will not shy away from challenging the school committee and our administrators to think creatively when approaching the issues we face, or even take an entirely different approach when necessary. That’s the kind of thinking the school committee needs. It’s the kind of leadership our schools need.

I’m nothing if not unapologetically persistent and relentlessly driven to have a positive impact in our community. Visit evelyngomez.org to learn more about my candidacy. I hope you will join me in this fight and respectfully ask for your vote on April 6. 

Evelyn Gómez, Belmont School Committee, Carleton Road

A Request For Your Vote: Jamal Saeh, School Committee

Photo: Jamal Saeh for School Committee (Saeh For Schools Facebook Page)

The Belmontonian is providing candidates/campaigners of ballot questions in contested races the opportunity to make a request for votes in the final week of the election race.

I am running for Belmont School Committee because I want to bring a sense of urgency to tackle challenges, bring disciplined data-driven decision making and leverage my experience with budgeting and long-term planning to help Belmont public schools support every student in reaching their potential. I believe my background and experience bring needed skills and diversity to the committee. 

I am an immigrant, son of a teacher. I moved to the US for education and to Belmont to provide my two boys with the best public education. I understand the path a good education provides, specifically to marginalized communities.  

I believe in the vision of Belmont Public Schools that all students are capable of learning at a high level and that it’s the duty of the SC to provide leadership and oversight to ensure that we maintain that promise. 

In the near term, we must deal with the fundamental challenge of operating schools during the pandemic. This requires science-based, data-driven decisions at the intersection of health, policy, and quality that must be done within a budget envelope. That’s my day-to-day job. I believe my professional experience adds a unique perspective to the SC. I am an executive at a pharmaceutical company. As a scientist and a leader, I am accountable for the research and clinical development of innovative medicines for cancer patients, and I do it with the requisite sense of urgency that cancer patients deserve 

I believe that good leaders identify and remove obstacles. In August, when it was clear that COVID testing could enable a safe return to in-person learning, I partnered with the community to offer solutions. I proposed a developmentally appropriate, cost-effective pooled testing proposal to the SC in September. It allowed us to get a baseline for all students and teachers and provide teachers with weekly testing and surveillance for the student population at all grades. It was ignored. Neighboring towns adopted it and operationalized it soon thereafter. The state implemented a similar program four months later. Belmont could have been a leader but chose not to act. Surveillance enabled schools to have data on the in-school transmission which enabled them to move to full in-person ahead of any Department of Elementary and Secondary Education mandate. As a member of the SC, I pledge to continue to collaborate with Belmont’s talented community to address new challenges and listen with authenticity to build creative solutions.  

It is also critical that mid and long-range planning be prioritized. With two new schools opening soon and a shift of fourth grade to the Chenery, a comprehensive plan needs to be in place to ensure these transitions are smooth for students and teachers. New opportunities will exist for 7-8 grade students when they are collocated with the high school, including access to the accelerated and collaborative curriculum. Clear budget decisions and oversight will be crucial in order to take advantage of these opportunities. I will work to ensure collaborative and stretch goals are in place, and outcomes routinely monitored.

I believe in greater transparency from the SC and School District. Transparency requires an open and honest decision-making process; it allows biases to be confronted and assumptions to be fully vetted. Transparency empowers the community and improves decisions and outcomes. Doing so rebuilds public trust, our biggest asset as leaders.

I pledge to protect excellence and equity for all students. I believe that we need to identify the causes of imbalance in access to parts of the Belmont Public School curriculum (e.g. uneven or ineffective communication with families; failure of earlier or prerequisite classes), confront and call out biases, revamp our curriculum where appropriate, and remedy the achievement gap.  I am encouraged that the Student Opportunity Act will more fully fund English Language Learner and Special Education programs and pledge to make sure the SC takes full advantage of this state program. I also believe that all students need to have the opportunity to find and pursue their passion. This means that we need to maintain or increase options in core and elective classes as well as extracurriculars that allow students to be sufficiently challenged in their areas of interest because it is then that they are really inspired and can learn and grow.

If elected on April 6th, I will bring my collaborative data-driven decision-making, and my focus on transparency and accountability to improve oversight and help keep BPS Belmont’s jewel in the crown.

Jamal Carlos Saeh, Watson Road, Precinct 1