Last Day, Final Advice from ‘Interim’ Superintendent Kingston

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

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

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

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

Belmontonian: What surprised you of the community?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fond Farewell for the Temporary, Interim, Long-Term Superintendent

When State Sen. Will Brownsberger read the proclamation for the Massachusetts Senate honoring Dr. Thomas Kingston, Belmont School District’s longest serving caretaker superintendent, it declared Kingston being “the semi-permenant, interim superintendent” of the school system he ran for the past three years.

“It says that,” said Kingston, before members of  the Belmont School Committee, town officials, educators and residents who came to the Belmont Gallery of Art on Monday, June 16 to thank the educator for his service to the town’s schools.

“It’s been a great three years in Belmont although I didn’t expecting three years in Belmont,” said Kingston, who received a proclamation from the House of Representatives from State Rep. Dave Rogers.

Kingston, who spent seven years as Chelsea’s Superintendent of Schools, was hired in June 2011 for a single year as interim superintendent who file the gap left with the departure of his predesessor George Entwistle.

Yet due to the lack of qualified candidates, his leadership skills and willingness to remain in the position, Kingston’s tenure stretched from one to three years, a time in which observers praised Kingston for his steady hand overseeing the district’s educators and steadying influence during three budget cycles.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to work in this kind of community with this kind of dedication to education which in many ways was a complement to what I was doing in Chelsea,” said Kingston.

“One of the most meaningful things for all of us has not just been the counsel you gave to us but also that you sought the advice of school committee members, the leadership council and people in town about what this community is and that’s a very profound experience,” said Laurie Graham, school committee member who thanked Kingston’s wife, Sue, “for letting us have Tom for the past three years.”

After his extended stay in neighboring Belmont – Kingston is an Arlington resident – he will be working part-time with new superintendents, an experience he likens to being a “utility infielder.”

The celebration included parting gifts – a “Belmont Rocks” T-shirt, an altered magnet that now says “‘Exiting’ Belmont”, and a daily calendar of literary phrases – in addition to a cake that Kingston supervised its distribution.


Power Off: Wellington Solar Panel Project Goes Dark

The sun set on plans to place solar panels on the roof of the Wellington Elementary School as the Belmont School Committee voted last night, Tuesday, April 8, to support Belmont School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston’s recommendation to rescind the contract associated with Boston-based contractor Broadway Electric, the solar installer which decided to close its business earlier this year.

“So it’s time to fish or cut bait and I’m suggesting we cut bait,” said Kingston.

Despite attempts to find another solar installer that would take over the current contract – which is considered a very small project by industry standards – the earliest that it would come before town officials for another round of approvals  would be in three months after studying the job.

“We need to stop protracting this,” said Kingston.

Kingston, who said the committee and the town remain strong supporters of using solar power, said it would be best for the new superintendent, John Phelan, who will begin his tenure on July 1, to take charge in leading the committee in finding a new vendor.

Kingston suggested that it would be advantageous for the town and schools to revisit the Wellington solar plan when a new High School is constructed, pairing it up with a larger project that could also include other municipal building such as the town’s fire stations.

“The bigger the project, the more attractive the job will become,” said Kingston.

Yet it is not known when that project will come on line; the school committee today submits its statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for the renovation of the current High School, a process that can take several years.

Nor is there any certainty that solar-power tax credits, which allows contractors to install panels for no cost to the town or school committee, will remain at the current level or be around when the High School project begins.