Selectmen Discuss Dates for Minuteman Vote And A Possible Escape

Photo: The possibility of an election and a Special Town Meeting.

With a vote in 16 communities to decide the future of the Minuteman Tech Regional High School less than two months away, the Belmont Board of Selectmen unveiled the tentative dates the town will discuss, vote and possibly severe its ties with the vocational school the town has sent its students for nearly five decades.

“This is a first step regarding coming to a conclusion of the Minuteman High School project and its financing,” David Kale, Belmont’s town administrator, told Selectmen on Monday, July 25.

In May, a Special Town Meeting voted against Minuteman’s $145 million financing plan as it was deemed too large for the limited number of students coming from district schools. 

• Monday, Sept. 12: The Belmont League of Women Voters and the town’s Warrant Committee will jointly hold an informational meeting at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St., where questions can be asked by voters to town and school officials. It could also be the date the Selectmen can make a recommendation on the plan’s passage or defeat. 

• Tuesday, Sept. 20: The district-wide vote on the project’s financing will take place between noon and 8 p.m. at Belmont’s seven polling stations. When the district-wide vote was first announced in mid-July, Minuteman officials – who are paying for the election – announced that each town would be voting at a single polling location (in Belmont at the High School’s field house) to keep expenses to approximately $11,000. 

But that plan was scuttled after both Arlington and Belmont protested the move, accusing it of an attempt to suppress voter turnout for no real cost savings.

“That was a good solution so not to cause disruptions at the high school,” which would be in session, said Kale. 

If Belmont votes against the bonding scheme, but the district-wide vote is in favor, the Selectmen will have 60 days to call and hold a Special Town Meeting to vote to withdraw from the district. 

• Monday, Sept. 26: 

“You’ll have to make some decisions depending what transpired in September,” said Kale at the first board meeting after the election. 

If the board does call for a Special Town Meeting, Town Meeting member can expect the following October dates to be put into play. 

• The week Monday, Oct. 10: The League of Women Voters will hold an informational and precinct meetings. 

• Wednesday, Oct. 19: Kale said the town has tentatively set the day for the Special Town Meeting, likely at the Chenery Middle School, as the first available date that it can be done. 

If the town votes to remove itself from the district but the other 15 voting member town refuse, Belmont will remain in the group but will not be responsible for the additional debt service, said Kale.

Currently, the town would be responsible for between $350,000 to $500,000 in annual assessments to build the new $145 million school. 

Mark Paolillo, Selectmen’s chair, said as part of the board’s deliberation, it will need to be informed by Belmont’s School Superintendent, John Phelan, “on alternatives for those students now attending Minuteman.”

Minuteman Relents on Election; Belmont To Use Usual Polling Precincts

Photo: Voting will take place in the customary locations.

In a decision affecting an all-important vote in two months time, the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District will allow Belmont to use its customary polling locations for the Sept. 20 election rather than a single, centralized site to determine whether the district can go ahead with the financing of a new $145 million vocational high school. 

Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman told the Belmontonian that she received word of the reversal from Minuteman Regional School District Superintendent Edward Bouquillon on Friday night, July 15.

“Belmont requested that for the district-wide Minuteman election that voters were able to vote at our usual seven locations, eight precincts … and they were kind enough to allow that to occur,” said Cushman to a question on whether Minuteman had responded to her request and a letter in support from the Belmont Board of Selectmen. 

Belmont’s Selectmen were highly critical of the earlier single location decision, saying it was a deliberate attempt by Minuteman – which under state law is allowed to call for a district-wide vote if it could not convince the 16 communities Town Meetings to move forward on the $100 million bonding plan – to stifle the vote in Belmont, the only of the district municipalities whose Town Meeting members voted down the financing plan at a Special Town Meeting earlier this year. 

If the district vote passes the bonding issue, Belmont ratepayers could find themselves paying an additional maximum of $500,000 annually in capital costs in addition to the tuition to allow the roughly 30 Belmont students to attend the school in Lexington. 

The selectmen joined Cushman in hailing the change. 

“I’m thrilled to hear that [Minuteman] has allowed at least Belmont to vote in our regular precincts,” said Mark Paolillo, the board’s chair. 

“I think they heard the concerns of the Town Clerk and [the board’s] letter … because we do expect a relatively high voter turnout,” said Sami Baghdady, vice chair of the board. 

“There is nothing more discouraging to the democratic process than heavy traffic, waiting in lines and with only one polling station, it would have a big dampening effect,” he said.

While many town officials believe voter turnout of registered voters in the other 15 district communities will be in the low teens and even single digits, Cushman expects upwards of 30 percent coming out to vote. 

“The way I looked at it, it wasn’t because I supported a point of view, I just want broad representation to vote either way on this,” said Paolillo.

Earlier this month, Minuteman’s recommendation was to use only one location for a vote, which Cushman said would place a hardship on Belmont voters by causing confusion on where to place their ballot not only on Sept. 20 but in state and national elections before and after the financing polling. 

Cushman said the only location in Belmont that could accommodate up to 6,000 voters would be the Wenner Field House on the Belmont High School campus off Concord Avenue. 

With the need for added transportation, police coverage and mailings to voters, Cushman noted the total cost to the town to use one location would eventually cost Minuteman – which is paying for the election – about the same amount, about $16,000, as using the seven sites. 

With the reversal on Minuteman’s part, Belmont voters will head to their familiar polling locations on Tuesday, Sept. 20, but with one distinct difference. 

“Polls will be open from noon until 8 p.m.; we will not open at our usual 7 a.m. start,” said Cushman.

Belmont Allege Minuteman Seeking To Depress Vote On New School

Photo: The Wenner Field House.

Calling restrictions on communities including Belmont a “deliberate attempt to depress the vote,” the Board of Selectmen is sending an urgent letter to the Minuteman Regional Tech School Committee to reconsider its recommendation of using only one location for a vote that could increase Belmont’s property taxes by half a million dollars over nearly three decades. 

“To limit the number of polling places ensures there will be lower voter turnout. And if that what you are attempting to do, then we disagree,” said Selectmen Chair Mark Paolillo of a series of moves by Minutemen officials that he and the board believes will dampen voter turnout in Belmont to decide, for a second time, on the future of a new technical school on the Lexington/Lincoln border that will cost nearly $145 million. 

The comments, made during the Selectmen’s Monday, July 11, meeting at Town Hall, came after the board heard from Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman that unless Minuteman retreats from its earlier position, nearly 6,000 voters will be forced to abandon their regular polling locations and tramp over to Belmont High School to vote on the final days of summer. 

Paolillo said a possible reason for Minuteman’s effort to suppress the vote specifically in Belmont is to thwart any avenue town officials have to leave the district. Belmont Town Meeting member rejected the current project as being too large for the ten communities – six towns have petitioned to leave the community once a final vote is cast on the new school – which will remain in the Minuteman system after the election.

If approved by an aggregate of voters in the 16 communities and with Belmont remaining in the district, taxpayers would likely foot a bill of up to $500,000 in annual capital costs– on top of tuition expenses – to house the approximately 30 students the town averages annually at the technical school.

Paolillo said Belmont would still be able to exit the district if a majority of voters reject the plan on Sept. 20. That would start the clock for town officials to call a Special Town Meeting 60 days after the election where those seeking to withdraw from the district will need to capture a two-thirds majority of Town Meeting members.

“So it’s in [Minuteman’s] interest to keep overall voter participation down while they push [the new school] supporters to come out to vote,” Paolillo told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

The vote was called by the Minuteman School Board after Belmont rejected the earlier plan at the town’s May Town Meeting. Under state law, since the regional district could not convince the Town Meeting in each of the 16 municipalities to approve the bonding for a $144 million project, the school committee was able to use a “second chance” that calls for a referendum in which a majority vote will determine if the $100 million bonding package – the state is expected to pitch-in $44 million – is approved.

Since it “called” the election and is paying $100,000 to hold it in the district communities, state law allows the Minuteman district “alone, in consultation with the Selectmen, gets to decide how this vote for the debt occurs” including what day and times it will take place and number of locations where the vote will take place, said Cushman.

The Minuteman Board has set the time and date of the referendum, to be held on Tuesday, Sept. 20 from noon to 8 p.m.

While Belmont usually opens seven polling stations for its eight precincts, Cushman said Minuteman is expected to limit voting to a single location as one way to control costs. While clerks in the other towns – whose Town Meetings voted for the bonding plan – are expected very low voter participation in single digits, Cushman expects a healthy turnout of about a third of registered voters, which would likely be the highest among the towns voting.

Cushman heard from Kevin Mahoney, the tech school’s assistant superintendent of finance who is heading the election campaign, that Arlington has also requested Minuteman to approve that town’s request to allow it to use its usual ten voting locations (for 22 precincts) rather than a central spot. 

That decision is yet to be made. 

Belmont has until July 22 to petition Minuteman to utilize its seven polling places, “however they have the final say since the warrant is issued by them and not you,” said Cushman, who has already sent that request to the school district. 

Cushman said the only site large enough to handle the estimated 6,000 voters expected to vote is the Wenner Field House on the Belmont High School campus off Concord Avenue. It would require placing a temporary floor on top of the new court and install between 50 to 60 polling booths.

While Minuteman’s reasoning for a single site for the vote is cost, Cushman told the Selectmen it’s likely the cost of holding the election at the high school will likely exceed the $12,000 expected cost of using the traditional seven locations and could pass the $16,000 price tag to use the seven sites for an all-day election.

Also, the Field House, home to Belmont High School volleyball home games and the locker rooms for the fall season, will need to be closed on that Monday and Tuesday to prepare for the vote. The midweek election would likely impact a varsity girls’ swimming meet on that Monday and cross country races on the Tuesday election.

The Belmont Selectmen feels the unfamiliar voting location and difficulty for residents using the site – a limited amount of parking is on the other end of the campus from the field house which could be a  burden for the many older voters – is troublesome for what it implies. 

“I’m all for wide voter turnout, and there is no [better] way to suppress the vote than to limit the locations, change where people are accustomed to and make it inconvenient because of long lines,” said Selectman Sami Baghdady. 

Complicating matters further, since voters will not be using their regular voting locations, Cushman is required by state statue to send an official notification to all voters 20 days, on Sept. 1, for the election of the change of voting venue. 

She noted that mailing would occur a week before voters head to the polls for the Massachusetts state party primaries a week later on Sept. 8. Cushman worries that many residents will misunderstand the notice and head for the high school to vote during the primary and Presidential election in November or ignore the document and attempt to vote at their regular precincts on Sept. 20.

Speaking about the difficulty of conducting a vote at the Field House during a school day and restricting locations both in Belmont and Arlington, “how can this not result in lower turnout? It has to,” asked Paolillo. 

“Whether you’re for or against the building project, it’s important to have as broad a representation as possible regarding community involvement,” said Paolillo. 

It is likely that the Board of Selectmen will call for an informational meeting sometime before the election to “educate the public on the ramifications of their vote,” said Paolillo. 

Minuteman To Hold District-Wide Vote Sept. 20 To OK $144M Building Project

Photo: Belmont may have voted no, but it could be on the hook for nearly $500,000 in annual costs to construct a new regional technical school.

Belmont may have voted “no” in May, but that hasn’t stopped the Minuteman School Committee from getting a second bite at the apple to approve a $100 million bonding issue to build a new regional technical school on the Lexington/Littleton town line.

On Monday, June 27, the school’s school committee voted 12-1 with one abstention to bring a referendum to build the school to the entire 14 community district.

The vote – funded by the Minuteman School Committee – will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 20 from noon to 8 p.m. 

“It’s a simple vote across all the [d]istrict towns,” said Edward Bouquillon, Minuteman’s Superintendent-Director in a statement issued on June 28.

“It’s done on the same day during the same hours. The votes are totaled. If there are more “yes” votes than “no” votes, the project is approved,” he said.

According to data from Minuteman Tech, renovations and repairs are projected to cost local taxpayers roughly $100 million and take six to ten years to complete. With the MSBA grant, the local share would be roughly the same amount, to be paid by local taxpayers and by out-of-district communities through a new capital fee assessed by the state.

The new vote comes about two months after a Special Town Meeting overwhelmingly rejected the bonding issue, the only Town Meeting to vote down the proposal that would saddled Belmont with an annual bill of $350,000 to $500,000 to pay for its portion of the nearly $100 million to build the school.

And despite Belmont having expressed its opinion on the issue and while many in town would like the town to commit its own “Brexit”-style departure from the district, “it has there really is no practical way for Belmont to leave the District before the vote is taken. It’s simply not possible,” said Jack Weis, Belmont’s representative to the Minuteman School Committee.

In the view of the Minuteman officials, they were left with only one option after Belmont’s legislative body rebuffed the proposal.

“We tried the traditional Town Meeting route and won by overwhelming margins just about everywhere,” said Bouquillon, winning approval in the other 13 Town Meetings. “But we were unable to make the case properly in one town [Belmont] and, given the rules of this process, that was enough to require going directly to citizens through a formal referendum.”

In hopes of saving a $44 million grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to build the school, said Bouquillon, the Minuteman School Committee will submit the issue directly to the voters of its member towns.

In a press release issued on Tuesday, June 28, Minuteman and officials from other communities in the Minuteman district met with Belmont officials on June 20 “to determine whether Minuteman should attempt to bring the matter back to Belmont Town Meeting or, alternatively, go to a referendum.”

Under the town meeting approval process, the project could only move forward if no member town voted to object. 

Belmont officials told the committee there was no indication that Town Meeting members would change their opposition to the project which it considers far too large for the number of students coming from district communities.

“[The] sensible course would be to proceed directly to referendum,” said Bouquillon. “Fortunately, state law gives multi-town districts such as Minuteman a second option for getting capital projects approved.”

“Under the new Regional Agreement, any community can petition to leave the District at any time.  The first step is to have a Special Town Meeting and to have the two-thirds of the Town Meeting members vote in favor of leaving. But, the actual departure isn’t effective for three years after that. So, there is no way to leave the District before the vote is taken.

Even if Belmont could decamp from the district, “communities are still obligated for their share of any debt incurred prior to the withdrawal date,” said Weis.

What’s In Store For Tonight’s Special Town Meeting, Wednesday, May 4

Photo: Rendering of the new Minuteman High School.

Three articles will be before the 290 Town Meeting Members as a Special Town Meeting convenes tonight, Wednesday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Belmont High School auditorium.                                                                                                              

Topping the agenda will be a vote to authorize the issuance of $144 million in bonds to finance the construction of a new Minuteman Technical High School. Last week both the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee voted “unfavorable action” on the article, contending the building constructed to house approximately 630 students is far too big for the roughly 360 students who attend from the 10 district city and towns.

Last week both the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee voted “unfavorable action” on the article, contending the building constructed to house approximately 630 students is far too big for the roughly 360 students who attend from the 10 district city and towns.

The Selectmen also noted Belmont would be required to pay between $350,000 to $500,000 annually to fund its share of the building’s cost, money that would require the town seek a debt exclusion to fund the building.

Supporters counter this “right-sized” building will quickly attract both students who are increasingly seeking practical educational options and towns that will join the school district to ensure their students will have a place at the table.

While the second article – taking the $1.7 million the town received from the sale of town-owned land adjacent to Woodfall Road to fund the feasibility study and other expense of the renovation/new construction at Belmont High School – appears straight forward, Selectman Jim Williams has filed an amendment. He is seeking a debate on whether there is a more appropriate funding source for this venture.

For example, Williams points to the approximately $3 million Kendell Fund – established with money from the insurance after the Kendell School building burned down – which was specifically created to pay for feasibility studies of municipal projects. Williams’ amendment received a 2-1 “unfavoriable action” vote from his fellow Selectmen. Williams had said he will support Article 2 whether his amendment is accepted.

The final article would appropriate $1.45 million in free cash – some call the line item the town’s “savings account” – to the purchase of six modular classrooms to be constructed on the tennis courts of the Chenery Middle School to help elevates the ongoing enrollment crunch.

Letter To The Editor: Don’t Sacrifice Minuteman Because Of Other Concerns

Photo: The Garden Classroom at the Burbank.

To the editor:

In my capacity as Co-President of the Burbank Elementary Parent Teacher Association, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with many students from Minuteman Career and Technical High School. Our gorgeous Garden Classroom would not have been possible without the hard work of students in the Minuteman Horticulture program under the guidance of their excellent teachers Sarah Ard and Peter Kelleher. They collaborated with the PTA to help us turn a sunken pit of weeds into an educationally valuable and beautiful part of the student experience at Burbank. This year, they are helping us turn a neglected patch on one of the school paths into a vibrant garden. Our school community owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Minuteman.

The Board of Selectmen decided that it needed to send a message that the proposed new Minuteman High School would be “too big” for the students who attend. They felt that financial impact on the average Belmont tax bill was too much to spend on this “too big” school (estimates of the impact range from $33-$75 per household). This decision ignored the fact that Minuteman was following the MSBA’s guidelines regarding the size of the school (the MSBA will not contribute to a new school building designed for fewer than 600 students). It ignored the fact that this is the last chance for Minuteman to take advantage of a level of funding no longer available through MSBA. And it ignored the fact that the existing school is in need of $100 million of repairs. Guess who would shoulder that cost if a new school is not built? Taxpayers in member towns, and without the assistance of the MSBA.

The Board’s decision also ignored the impact a new school – one that serves the needs of vocational education in the 21st century – would have on enrollment at Minuteman. The Board of Selectmen does not seem to understand the role that vocational education can and should play in serving our community and in serving the towns that share Minuteman with Belmont. A state of the art facility that provides educational opportunities for fields in high demand in today’s economy – biotech, robotics, health care, fiber optics – along with the vocational stalwarts of plumbing, electricity, and automotive, will better attract the students that could most benefit from a hands-on, experience-based education. And a new facility is much more likely to attract new member towns. Staying with the status quo is more likely to lose students and member towns, further increasing the burden on the municipalities that stay.

I am sorry to say that the Warrant Committee also voted against the new Minuteman, but by a close margin. The other member towns have or are likely to support the plan because they know it is the best option. Town Meeting in Belmont overwhelmingly approved remaining in the Minuteman District, and our town has been part of the planning process every step of the way, do we want to be the town that votes against its future? I am well aware of our other capital obligations in town: Belmont High School, the Library, the Police Station, DPW. But we cannot sacrifice Minuteman High because we have these other concerns. They have been working a long time towards this desperately needed solution, and the students that benefit from it deserve much better than being snubbed by our town.

My sister attended a regional technical high school in Connecticut. It enabled her to begin working right away after high school, and she later went on to run her own business. While this model of technical education – one where graduates are employable from day one – is still a part of the vocational experience, many students at Minuteman continue their education in related fields: medicine, biochemistry, landscape architecture, programming, and much more. It’s a model that works, now more than ever, and our town should support it.

Jessie Bennett

Precinct 1

Town’s Financial ‘Watchdog’ Follows Selectmen Recommending ‘No’ On Minuteman

Photo: The interior of the new Minuteman Tech High School.

In a vote that was not unexpected, the town’s Warrant Committee voted Wednesday, April 27, to recommend next week’s Town Meeting rejects a $144 million funding plan for a new building to house the Minuteman Career and Technical High School.

The 8 to 6 vote came two days after the Belmont Board of Selectmen voted Monday, April 25, unanimously to recommend “unfavorable action” on the financing program that would have the 10 communities that now represent a newly reconstituted Minuteman school district – which Belmont Town Meeting Members overwhelmingly approved in February at a Special Town Meeting – picking up about $100 million in expenses as the state will reimburse $45 million in costs. 

Under the financing plan, each of the ten district communities Town Meetings must approve the building project. So far, most of the smaller towns such as Acton, Stowe and Boxborough have voted in favor of the plan. In an important decision just days before the two Belmont votes, Arlington’s financial committee which has the same role as Belmont’s Warrant Committee, recommended a “yes” vote to Arlington’s Town Meeting which convenes in mid-May.

As with the selectmen’s vote the previous night, a majority of the committee expressed that the building, designed to house 630 students, is too large for the ten member communities in the Minuteman School District who send about 340 high schoolers to the Lexington campus.

Belmont currently sends 26 students to the school, which is about the average number over the past decade. 

In addition, those opposing the plan contend there is no assurance other than recent favorable comments from officials from Everett and Watertown – two communities outside the district that pays a higher tuition per pupil to send them to Minuteman – that any of the out-of-district cities and towns that send students to Minuteman are willing to join the district and take on a sizable chunk of the capital expense of a new school, or are prepared to back a $8,400 per student surcharge the district is seeking to help defer the cost of the building. 

Finally, even if others would step up to the plate to subsidize the cost, Belmont would be saddled with an annual payment over 20 years of between $372,000 and $500,000 of its share of the construction costs. 

“We simply don’t have the money. It would require us to cut [town and school] programs to find the funds,” said Paolillo, saying the town would need to request a debt exclusion to pay for the building around the same time the town will approach residents seeking a possible $100 million debt exclusion for the renovation and new construction at Belmont High School.  

“We really have no other options,” said Paolillo, who believes a no vote – which will scuttle the plan – will require the Minuteman district to come up with a Plan B, which the district members can take a new look at the issues facing the school. 

Pleading the case for a new school building, Minuteman Superintendent Ed Bouquillon reiterated the hope that a new school building, sized to allow for the teaching a wide range of trades and areas of engineering studies in addition to greater interest nationwide among high school aged student in learning technical subjects.

Bouquillon also noted that a school built for 435 student – the smallest that the state will reimburse – would cost $120 million. While admitting that the $24 million difference “is significant,” it should be seen as an “incremental cost” when you understand the upside of having a school with greater potential of serving a wider population with a significant number of programs.

Supporters on the committee, including newly installed chair Roy Epstein, said despite the cost, “it was better off going forward than stopping and starting over” without the assurance that the new plan would be better for Belmont and its students.

But the majority decided a “rethink on this whole district” is needed, said committee member Bob McLaughlin.

Unanimous: Selectmen Recommend No on $144 Million Minuteman Building

Photo: A rendering of the new Minuteman School.

In a surprise vote of unity, the Belmont Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to recommend a “no” vote by the annual Town Meeting on a request to finance a new $144 million building for the Minuteman 

“I was not expecting a 3-0 vote from the board,” said John McLaughlin, who has been advocating that the town rejects the proposal.

“That said, I am delighted with the vote,” said McLaughlin, who was part of the town’s task force that spent two years atttempting to construct a new district plan and attempt to build and finance a new school.

McLaughlin noted that nearly all the remaining nine community town meetings have or are likely to approve the measure, saying the Selectmen were showing the same courage to act on principal as is the theme of the play “Twelve Angry Men.”

“It shows leadership to vote and not be influenced or motivated what others are doing,” he said.

For Jack Weis, Belmont’s representative on the Minuteman School Committee, the negative vote was not unexpected.

“I not surprised by the vote because [the Middlesex school authorities] had a high bar to clear” which it could not do because “the project had major flaws,” said Weis. 

“This is a really tough call,” said Mark Paolillo, chair of the board, as the selectmen reviewed and voted on each of the articles that will be before Town Meeting in the May session which includes all non-budgetary items as well as the scheduled Special Town Meeting.

“As a group, we are not ready to move forward” on the measure since the building selected is “too big” for the students committed to attend, said Paolillo.

Saying that while the board is not saying a new school building – the current structure dates from the early 1970s and was nearly shut down by the Lexington Fire Department four years ago for safety concerns – “it’s just that we could have a white elephant” on the town’s financial books, said Paolillo.

In the end, the selectmen could not justify building a new school for roughly 630 students when the now reconstituted ten community Minuteman school district is sending little more than half – 330 pupils –of that number.

“It really is froth with uncertainity,” said Selectman Jim Williams.  

In addition, the Selectmen were concerned that many assumptions being made by the Minuteman administration – of increasing enrollment, the hope the state would approve placing a $8,400 tuition surcharge on the nearly 45 percent of the school’s population that come from “out of district” communities (such as Watertown and Waltham) to help pay for the new school – were too risky to undertake considering that Belmont would be saddled with between an annual charge of $372,000 to $500,000 in capital expenses for the next 20 years. 

“That’s a lot of money to spend when [Belmont] sends 26 students there a year,” said McLaughlin, 

The selectmen’s vote came two days before the Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog also votes on the Minuteman measure. In previous meetings, a majority of Warrant Committee members voiced similar concerns with the proposal.

If Belmont rejects the Minuteman school, the new building scheme – which the Massachusetts School Building Authority has pledged nearly $45 million to its construction – would be set aside while several options are considered by the state and Minuteman administration. 

One alternative would be a district-wide vote in the remaining 10 communities in which a simple majority of the 10 communities would ratify the deal or if the district ejects the town from the school district. 

The vote came after the town in February voted to overwhelmingly approve joining an newly structured Minuteman School District.

But McLaughlin said Town Meeting Members should not confuse that approval of a new district structure should automatically lead to approving a new building,

“For towns like Belmont and Arlington that rely on their residential tax base, it would really hurt if something that is overbuilt and over priced is crammed down their throats,” he said. 

Five Things To Know About the Special Town Meeting (Minuteman Edition)

Photo: Special Town Meeting 

Tonight’s Belmont Special Town Meeting – being held Monday, Feb. 22 at the Chenery Middle School – will include a vote to establish a Building Committee for the Belmont High School renovation and whether to include a site evaluation of the soil for contaminants at the high school before construction begins (even though that will occur as part of the building process.)

But those votes are just appetizers for the main course which comprises of the future of the Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington, the location where a little more than two dozen Belmont students are taught in a vocational-technical environment. Belmont’s assessment to Minuteman fluctuates yearly from $830,000 in fiscal ’16 to $750,000 in the coming fiscal year. 

What the Special Town Meeting will not explore is the education being provided the Belmont residents, but the building where they are being taught and who’s going to pay for a new High School. 

According to Jack McLaughlin, the representative from Belmont’s Warrant Committee who helped shaped the new regional contract, the proposal before Town Meeting “is a terrible agreement until you see the alternative.” 

  1. Here’s a brief history leading up to the special town meeting:
  • In July 2014, the Lexington Fire Department came close to condemning the building, built in 1972, for lots of reasons.
  • Minuteman’s administration begins the process of building a new school with an expected population of roughly 700 kids. 
  • Towns such as Belmont and Arlington wanted to put the brakes on this deal because 1. a high percentage of students come from municipalities outside the district (Waltham, Malden and Watertown that sends double the kids from Belmont) and 2. under the current agreement those towns don’t have to pay a red penny towards the debt to build the new facility even though the school’s current freshman class is nearly 50/50, district/non-district students. 
  • Belmont said “enough” to the planned school, saying if a new school is built, then it should be constructed for 400 kids, the number of students from members towns. The Minuteman administration, saying they need a big school to offer a greater number of courses to draw in students, virtually ignores the opponents and pushes forward with a new, larger school.
  • Belmont – led by Belmont’s Minuteman School Committee member Jack Weis, the Warrant Committee’s Jack McLaughlin and Selectman Mark Paolillo – and Arlington told Minuteman unless they have a new regional agreement, you can expect a big fat NO when it comes time to approve issuing debt for the school. That would cause all sort of delays and chaos for the administration. 
  • In a surprise move, the Minuteman administration agrees in December to put up a regional agreement before the 16 municipalities for a vote. It must be a unanimous vote from the town meetings for it to pass. 
  • On the same day in January that Belmont received the state go-head from the Massachusetts School Building Authority to start the process of renovating and construction of Belmont High School, Minuteman was approved to begin the undertaking of building its new school. It will need to come back to the state by June 30, to demonstrate how they will pay for it. (i.e.,, the communities).

      2. So, is tonight’s meeting about how much the town will have to pay for a new Minuteman High School?

No, that decision, to approve a $144 million new building, will come before June 30. Tonight’s vote is all about adopting a new regional agreement between the 16 towns and cities that are in the “district” including Belmont.

     3. What’s in this new agreement?

A lot, specifically for Belmont.

  1. The new agreement jettisons the school committee’s “one-town, one-vote” and moves to a proportional board where those towns that send the most kids to the school have a greater weighted vote. 
  2. It will be a bit easier to draw new towns into the club – it’s a buy-in incentive – giving them four years of gradual increasing capital payments before reaching their full assessment.
  3. Communities can withdraw much more quickly from the district, no longer needing all 16 other towns to agree. And seven of the 16 municipalities will be attempting to do just that if the agreement passes. Why? The towns – nearly all with only a handful of students – would not have to pay their part of the long-term debt. But by doing so, they would be prevented from returning to the district for four years. 
  4. Cities and towns of out-of-district students will also be paying for the new school as each student will be assessed “a capital facilities fee” equal to at least the average member- town cost. That fee will need to be approved by the state, but Belmont reps said officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education didn’t make much of a fuss when presented with a draft agreement.
  5. Then there is the issuance of debt. All 16 (or 9, if the smaller communities leave) town meetings will still need to approve the $144 million building plan. [With state grants, the final price tag will be $100 million] Under the new agreement, if a town meeting rejects the debt plan, it can withdraw from the district before a second vote is called by the Minuteman administration. This way a portion of the $100 million debt can not be “crammed down on Belmont.” 

      4. The new agreement looks like a very good deal for Belmont; what could go wrong?

Plenty. Here’s one: legal action by Watertown and other communities for the state to throw out the capital facilities fee placed on their students. Malden and Watertown have some powerful friends in the legislature.

Here’s another, the school remains oversized for the number of students from the district, and that will not change. Belmont would see an additional $350,000 (increasing the average real estate tax bill by $38) added to its annual assessment bringing the town’s total yearly charge to a million dollars while Arlington would pay $1.5 million. 

Also, it’s unlikely that the state will approve the new agreement before a vote will take by the 16 towns to support the debt. It appears that despite voting for a new regional agreement, Belmont and the other towns will be required to play by the “old rules” which doesn’t allow for an escape clause for towns that don’t agree with the size of the building or other aspects of the new school.

 5. So why not just vote down the whole complex proposal?

Yes, that is an option. Only that there are consequences, the first is losing the Mass School Building Authority’s $45 million grant to build the new school. And since Belmont is a member of the district and under the old agreement can not leave without the approval of the other 15 member towns, it will be required to repair the building. That cost: $176.5 million over 10 years. 


Special Town Meeting on Minuteman, HS Building Committee Proposed for Feb. 8

Photo: Minuteman Regional HS

Belmont officials s selected a tentative date for Town Meeting to vote to approve or reject a new regional agreement for the Minuteman Career and Technical High School.

The Board of Selectmen will discuss and vote for a Special Town Meeting on Monday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. in the Chenery Middle School’s auditorium at its Monday, Jan. 11 meeting.

That same night members will also decide to create a building committee to oversee a major renovation of Belmont High School. But this article comes with a big “if.” 

Along with accepting the date, Selectmen will open and close the Special Town Meeting warrant – at which time items can be put on Town Meetings agenda – during the discussion.

Town Meeting members will be asked to approve a series of fundamental changes to the existing agreement with the 15 other towns and cities in the Minuteman. 

Those alterations include the ability of members communities to withdrawal from the agreement (a number of towns with a handful of students have indicated they wished to depart the group) and requires out-of-district communities such as Watertown, Waltham and Medford which send nearly 40 percent of the new students to the school, to help pay a proportional share of capital costs of a new $144 million building.

In a last minute addition to the warrant, members will be asked to approve the creation of a Belmont High School Building Committee, which will direct the estimated $100 million renovations of the existing building and the construction of a science wing. 

The article was suggested by Pat Brusch of the Capital Budget Committee and former vice-chair of the Wellington Building Committees, who said the creation of a committee will give the group a several month head start on working with the state on the multi-year project and begin building public consensus for the project.

The town will likely vote in 2017 on a $65-$70 million debt exclusion to fund the project. 

The article’s big “if” is that its existence depends on the approval of the School District’s Statement of Interest by the Massachusetts School Building Authority which will fund close to a third of the renovation and construction costs.

The MSBA will select approximately half of the 25 projects currently on its “short” list at its Jan. 28 meeting.