‘There’s No Panic On Pleasant Street’: Phelan Resolute In Difficult Year As Educator Pink Slips Coming In May

Photo: John Phelan, superintendent, Belmont Public Schools

It was day two of “Belmont after No” as the town and its residents began coming to grips with austerity being the guiding policy for local governance in the unforeseeable future after voters rejected a $6.4 million override on Tuesday, April 6.

But to Schools Superintendent John Phelan, the reduction of millions in funding and pending teacher and staff layoffs is not going to cripple student learning for the upcoming school year beginning in September.

“There’s no panic on Pleasant Street,” said Phelan, referring to the location of the school district’s headquarters while speaking at a joint meeting of the Belmont School Committee Finance Subcommittee held virtually on Thursday, April 8.

“We’re going to reduce $2 million worth of expenses [but] the school department is not going to fall apart. I want every single family to know that their child will be taken care of next year. School will happen,” said Phelan, who praised both teachers and staff for their dedication to teaching during a pandemic and, now, job firings

Phelan reassured the committee and community that the approaching 2021-22 school year – which will start in person this September at each of the town’s six buildings – will be “on par” with the 2018-19 and “much better” than the current year of remote and hybrid schooling.

That’s not to say the cuts won’t be felt by every student that attends the district, said Phelan.

Cuts in activities and increase in class sizes

“Class sizes will be higher, and there’ll be some parts of your [student’s] day that won’t be available to you with clubs and activities that were in years past, but we will get through this,” said the superintendent.

The reality of the difficult decisions as a result of the austerity budget came when Phelan announced two rounds of RIF – a reduction in force – totaling 22 full-time equivalent positions. On April 30, educators hired in the past year to contend with COVID-related issues will be made redundant.

But it will be on May 15 when the gut punch to the district will be felt as 11 current teachers, staff, and administrators (totaling $635,000) will receive pink slips while an equal number of educators which the district had planned to hire ($870,500 in wages and benefits) will be set aside. The cost of $1.5 million in cuts is the loss of programs and activities, higher class sizes, and fewer teachers.

Just where the cuts will come will be determined this week by the district’s Leadership Council, made up of school principals and administrators. Earlier in the year, Phelan noted the district will not follow a “last hired, first fired” approach when determining who is let go. Rather, it will come down to where the need for teachers is greatest. With middle and high school numbers are expected to continue to grow while early elementary classes – such as kindergarten to first grade – are beginning to stay level, the greatest share of cuts will come from the cohort teaching kindergartens to fourth grade.

In addition, there is growing support in the district and on the committee to hire a new diversity director that is on the chopping block for next year as well as other positions the school committee believes “have value,” said Phelan.

If the committee feels those positions that were being cut or set aside are necessary, that would result in further reduction of teachers and staff beyond the 11 FTEs slated to be fired.

The staff reductions will be accompanied by nearly half a million dollars in cuts to all extra curriculum activities including clubs, music, theater, and sports district-wide. While no decisions on reductions have been made, discussions in the past few months pointed to possibly eliminating freshman sports teams while creating “intermural” programs in arts, music, and theater.

Revenues remain ‘fluid’

If there is a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered budget it was highlighted by Phelan and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin at the Warrant Committee Wednesday night acknowledging that funding for both schools and town “remains fluid.” Both point to the Massachusetts State Legislature which has yet to present its version of the 2022 state budget which includes Chapter 70 Local Aid. In addition, the town has been allocated $7.2 million in the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden in March.

Yet the state legislature has yet to show any indication local aid will deviate far from Gov. Baker’s proposed $12.5 million to Belmont which the town is using as a placeholder in its budget calculations. And the federal government remains quiet on issuing guidelines for using the $7.2 million.

Even before the state legislature acts and the guidance on the ARP comes down, Phelan is in early talks with Garvin on possibly using those funds to “fill in the gap” in the school budget.

An example of this approach would be “to parlay those federal dollars into services that would help students in lieu of something that we might have to reduce” such as hiring a high school social worker to help with mental health issues related to the pandemic, said Phelan.

“We have a discussion with the town if there’s any way that the $7 million can be used for COVID-related issues,” said Phelan. “We know it’s really going to come down to whether or not those definitions of the four areas of expenditures for the town” which include responding to the coronavirus health impacts or economic impacts.

Belmont District Closed For Remainder of School Year; Superintendent: Answers To Questions Coming ASAP

Photo: Belmont School Administration Building

Belmont’s approximately 5,000 public school students will be finishing the 2019-2020 school year learning from home as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday, April 21, that school buildings will be closed for the remainder of the school year and remote learning will continue for the remainder of the academic calendar.

In his press conference, Baker said the state was very much in the grips of a pandemic and “[w]e believe students, therefore, cannot safely return to school and avoid the risk of transmitting this virus to others.”

“It’s the right thing to do, considering the facts on the ground associated with the COVID 19 pandemic,” he said.

Responding to Baker’s remarks, Belmont School District Superintendent John Phelan said: “Given this new information and updated status, the district will continue our remote learning plan as we continue to learn the strengths and growth areas in our current program.”

“The extension of the school closure will come with many questions, and we will continue to work collaboratively with our educators and School Committee to provide you with those answers as soon as possible,” said Phelan.

Belmont Super Tells School Committee What He Did This Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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