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.”