Letter to the Editor: An Insider’s Reason for Vote ‘Yes’ on the Override

Photo: Yes campaigners.
To the editor:
We all have been inundated with reasons for and against the override vote on April 7.  I’ve see the needs as a resident and an insider, as a parent and a decision maker.
I have lived in Belmont for 19 years, and on either side of Belmont for another nine.  My six years on Belmont’s School Committee (which included, as the School Committee rep, two years on Warrant Committee and two on Capital Budget Committee) have given an enlightening view into many parts of town government. I’ve been lucky enough to work with professionals in Town Hall, School Administration Building, and each of the schools, I and am sometimes awed by what they can produce for us with limited resources.
Here are the key points that make me an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed override:
Big Picture on School Spending
I’m a fan of allocating a reasonable amount of resources for a given function, then letting the professionals manage within that limit.  Clearly, Belmont Public Schools’ per-pupil spending shows that we get a lot of value for our money. It is about 12 percent below state average and far less than nearby towns such as Newton, Lexington, and Watertown. The state Dept of Ed breaks that spending into major categories, where we can see that our per-pupil spending on teachers is 11 percent below state average and administration is a whopping 30 percent below. Yes, 30. To me this negates squawking from the “no” side about some individual teacher salaries being high.  Yes, some are indeed high. But some are low for what we get. Most are within reason for the professional tasks they do – just like at my own company, and probably yours.
Financial Task Force Cred
One of Belmont’s faults over the past few decades is its lack of planning and reluctance to look ahead, whether for finance or infrastructure. The Financial Task Force, appointed in 2013, is a serious effort address exactly that. Members should be applauded, and their findings taken seriously. This override is a reasonable step to address Belmont’s needs. Names like Paolillo, Carmen and Mahoney are hardly associated with irresponsible spending or caving to special interests.  The additional money won’t fix everything – it is necessary, but not sufficient – and there is still a ton of work to do across Town and Schools for the long-term well-being of our entire community, kids and adults, infrastructure and people.
The “No” Side
I should know better than to be surprised by the ideological intransigence of the “No” side, but I still am.  From my six years on School Committee, and observations the years after, this summarizes the patterns I see from some individuals who are or were on the Warrant Committee:
The disregard of the FTF’s findings is very disappointing, and even disrespectful. It seems they’ve chosen to simply ignore the facts, even in their rhetoric. But then they are trying to position themselves as the eventual saviors, sharpening pencils and tightening belts, or whatever trite phrasing you want. It is as if the professionals who work for the town have not tried and do not know their jobs better than those Warrant Committee members. Every committee has wanted the thorough, factual look that the FTF has produced, and I assume the No side did too.  But I think they did not get the answer they wanted, and are now ignoring and talking over the findings.
The Warrant Committee is often called the “fiscal watchdog,” but too often some want to micromanage departments’ internal spending, and even intrusively try to manage policy. For schools, I have seen them question curriculum offerings, like whether to offer art at all (since it’s not required by the state), advanced language classes, and even support for college counselors. 
Please join me in voting Yes on April 7.
John Bowe
Elizabeth Rd

Opinion: Vote ‘Yes’ Tuesday to End Cycle of Underfunding Education

Photo: Campaigners at a recent Precinct Meeting.

What are the schools our students deserve? That is the question facing our community next Tuesday.  

As an educator, union member, taxpayer and resident of Belmont all my life, I have seen a cycle of underfunding education that has brought us to this point.  The response now from those against the override sounds familiar; they simply say we can solve the problem without an override. That solution, however, simply places greater burdens on students and educators.

Our town has one of the state’s best public school systems, and it is essential to invest in our students’ future to maintain that excellence. Attacking educators’ compensation is deceptive and ignores how hard the Belmont Education Association and Belmont School Committee have worked together to operate within the town’s means.

An override is needed to sustain the schools and address increasing enrollment over the next three years. We need to support the children of Belmont and to support the town’s Financial Task Force, which is recommending passage of the override.

Since 2009, an additional 317 students have entered into grades K-12. Even with a highly trained and capable staff, larger class size means less individualized attention for our students. Class sizes have increased beyond School Committee-recommended maximums. Without additional staff and resources to address these concerns, students will not have the same learning opportunities and programming as this year’s graduates.   

Belmont is a residential community, and homeowners bear much of the funding for our schools.  This is a choice we make to maintain Belmont’s character and ensure our students continue to perform to the best of their abilities. If we do not want commercial development, then we need to be prepared to pass this override to address increasing enrollment.  This override is an essential investment to maintain the value and quality of the entire community.  

Over the past six years, teachers have forgone compensation to support our students. Your child’s teacher has given back salary increases to fund the schools and prevent the need for an override. It is erroneous to characterize our agreement as expensive and our methods as “more aggressive.”   

While some choose to criticize teacher salaries, ours are lower than competitive communities. In a state analysis of average teacher salaries in towns with the top public high schools, Belmont places last behind Concord-Carlisle, Wayland, Weston, Dover and Wellesley.   

As educators, Belmont teachers strive to provide the best possible outcomes for all students. We have been doing more with less for too long. Based on comparable communities, our salaries are not the issue.  

As residents we must place our children at the center of the conversation and this decision.  Please raise your hand to support our students and vote “Yes” next Tuesday.

John Sullivan

Palfrey Road

(Editor’s note: Sullivan is the president of the Belmont Education Association, the negotiating agent for Belmont’s educators.) 

Opinion: Belmont’s ‘No’ Nothings; The Override Offers Voters a Choice: Financial Planning, or Finger Pointing?

Photo: Torn textbook.
By Paul Roberts
 
We didn’t need Warrant Committee member Adam Dash to hold up a student’s tattered, 20 year old text book, as he did at last week’s Candidate’s Night debate, to grasp the depths to which our Town of Homes has fallen. Nor did we need him to heft the softball sized piece of pavement dislodged from a pothole outside his home to appreciate the truth of what he was saying: Belmont has woefully neglected in its infrastructure, schools and town services for too long.

We understand the truth of what Adam said viscerally. As parents, we have seen our own children’s classes swell even as course offerings shrivel and fees jump. We crouch in decrepit carols at the crowded Belmont Public Library and skate around the bird droppings at the Viglirolo ice rink. Our cars drop into cavernous potholes.

If these are problems for you, as they are for me, then you expect and deserve to be told how your vote – “YES” or “NO” –on the proposed $4.5 million Proposition 2 ½ override will help to address those problems.

Our town’s leadership has a clear answer and a plan based on research and study by the Financial Task Force. It was the Task Force that recommended passage of the $4.5million override as a first step to putting Belmont back on track. In brief: revenue from the override will fund a yearly increase in investments in road and sidewalk repair. It will hire and retain teachers to keep course offerings in place and allow Belmont to add classes to respond to a sharp increase in student enrollment. Money will be set aside to create a budget stabilization fund to address future needs. This is the plan and vision that the YES for Belmont campaign is working to realize.

In contrast, the “No Override” campaign that has emerged in recent weeks has no plan for addressing those issues. Not only does the group not have a plan, they don’t even have an explanation for the problems that face our Town of Homes.

What the No campaign does offer is a lot of folksy sayings. Campaign Treasurer, Mr. Raffi Manjikian, speaking opposite Mr. Dash at Candidates Night, said that after Belmont voters rejected the override, the town would “go back to the drawing board” and “sharpen our pencils.” What would be on that drawing board? What specific problems would those pencils be pressed into solving? He couldn’t say.

Asked by attendees at Candidates’ Night how the town and schools should cope with immediate issues created by the failure of the override, such as a projected $1.7 million school budget deficit, Mr. Manjikian offered no concrete ideas.

Asked how the town should respond if the planned cuts at Belmont High School in the wake of a “No” vote put the town afoul of the state mandatory minimum of 990 instructional hours, Mr. Manjikian had no thoughts.

Asked to explain how it was that our neighbor Lexington – which also gets 86% percent of its annual revenue from local property taxes – saw fit to pass $5.3 million in overrides to Belmont’s $0.00 in the last decade to support schools, roads and public safety, Manjikian brushed the question off, seemingly incurious about the goings on next door.

 
Paul Roberts a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 8 and the editor of Blogging Belmont.

Letter to the Editor: The Steak and Potatoes of Voting ‘Yes’ for the Override

Photo: Young “Yes” campaigners in Cushing Square on Saturday, March 28.

To the editor:

To the “distinguished” gentleman in the Lexus who gave me a thumbs down this morning [Saturday, March 28] when I was holding a YES for Belmont sign in Cushing Square:

Congratulations on your success.  I’m sure you worked hard for it.  As my 84-year-old father would say, you are driving the “steak and potatoes” of cars.

Maybe you own a house in Belmont. Maybe you bought it long before I bought mine in 2005, when home values were not so high. Maybe you had kids in the Belmont School District, a steak and potatoes school district if there ever was one.

And maybe your kids have done well too, partly as a result of that school district.  I congratulate you.

But the failure of the last override has already taken some steak and potatoes from my son, who did not enjoy fifth-grade foreign languages as those who preceded him in the school system had.  He wants to be an engineer some day; speaking Spanish will help.

My son is in sixth grade, and I purchased my condo in Waverley Square in great part to give him a steak and potatoes education.  I love Belmont and intend to spend the rest of my life here.

This morning [Saturday, March 28] he, an eighth grade friend and a tenth grade friend held signs in Cushing Square in support of the override (photo attached).

If this override does not pass, BHS juniors and seniors will be limited to five courses instead of seven.  This means almost two hours of “free time” in the school day! Chenery Middle School students will have larger class sizes and will lose the “small school within a big school” team teaching system that strengthens learning and helps them through the difficult early teenage years.  And elementary students will lose the intervention that helps struggling students catch up to their peers.

I urge all Belmont residents to vote YES April 7. Below is another way of looking at it. Belmont’s last operating override passed in 2002, 13 years ago. Since that time, similar communities have passed numerous overrides, totaling as follows:

$6.8 million in Acton
$12.5 million in Arlington
$6.2 million in Concord
$10 million in Lexington
$5.8 million in Milton
$7.6 million in Needham
$19.9 million in Newton
$10.3 million in Sudbury
$6.6 million in Wayland
$14.5 million in Wellesley
$5.9 million in Winchester

Belmont, $0

By the way, I drove over some nasty “hamburger and French fries” potholes this morning on my way to hold that YES sign. Those will be fixed too with this override!

Kate Searle

Beech Street

League’s Candidates’ Night Features Selectman Race, Override Question

Photo: The Belmont League of Women Voters’ annual candidates’ night will be held at the Chenery Middle School. 

The Belmont League of Women Voters annual Candidates’ Night – being held tonight, Thursday, March 26, at 7 p.m. in the Chenery Middle School auditorium – will give most residents the opportunity to hear directly from the two men seeking to secure a seat on the Belmont Board of Selectmen and, possibly, learn from both sides of the override issue the arguments for and against the ballot question.

Tonight’s schedule is:

  • 7 p.m.: Meet your Town Meeting Members in the lobby and inside the auditorium. 
  • 7:30 p.m.: Town Meeting Members will introduce themselves in order of precinct number.
  • 7:45  p.m.: The candidates for Belmont Board of Selectmen – incumbent Andy Rojas and challenger Jim Williams – will give an introductory statement and will answer questions from a League moderator. 

Time will be set aside at 9:15 p.m. after the selectman candidates have spoken for a question and answer on the $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question. 

The night’s events will be broadcast by the Belmont Media Center.

‘No’ Committee Gives Reasons to Why It Opposes ‘Mega’ Override

A committee formed to oppose the Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot stated it does not believe the $4.5 million increase in taxes is not in the best long-term interest “of the residents, the schools or the town,” according to a press release from the group.

The statement (which is in its entirety below) from the Vote NO on Ballot Question 1 Committee sets out in a series of highlighted paragraphs its argument against the override measure to be decide in less than two weeks. 

Dubbing the ballot question “the mega override,” the committee – headed by chair Elizabeth Allison and treasurer Raffi Manjikian – argues the override, which is a recommendation from the Financial Task Force in January and placed on the Town Election ballot by the Belmont Board of Selectmen in February – believes its passage would cripple the currently level of diversity in town by forcing middle-class families to abandon Belmont due to the spike in real estate taxes.

The committee also question many of the fiscal assumptions made by the Task Force underpinning  the override; instead supporting “good alternatives” which contend the town can raise the necessary funds to fill major funding gaps facing the schools – the School District state due to skyrocketing enrollment and other expenses the town’s schools face a $1.7 million deficit in fiscal 2016 – as it has in 10 of the past 13 annual budget cycles. 

The press release from the committee: 

A group of committed town volunteers and Town Meeting Members has formed a ballot question committee, “Vote NO on Ballot Question 1 Committee” and provided the following statement:

“We have come together because we cherish this town and do not believe that the mega override of $4.5 million is in the best interest of the residents, the schools or the town.  We have formed the “Vote NO on ballot Question 1 Committee” to:

Highlight the impact on the town’s character of the likely tax increases.  Of the many things to cherish about Belmont, one of the best is the true diversity of the town.  Inequality may have triumphed elsewhere, but Belmont still affordable with great public services that all enjoy equally.  Doubling tax bills over the next twelve years will change that forever.

Lay out the full financial costs of the tax increases that for the average homeowner both next year and thereafter.   Starting in fiscal year July 2016 (begins July 1, 2015) the average homeowner’s tax bill will increase by $206 without the override but by $854 with – a 4x difference.  With  no commitments to manage costs, another mega override will be required in 2017 -18, and again in 2020 -21. These increases do not include the costs of debt overrides that will be needed to renovate our high school, build a police station or a new DPW building that meets minimum standards. 

Provide voters with solid facts and research on the financial situation of the town and the current state of the schools. For example, very few residents, just listening to what’s being said about surging enrollment, would realize that over the last three years, the school budget has grown at a rate 50% higher than enrollment (annual 3.9% budget vs. 2.6% increase in enrollment.  Similarly, the Financial Task Force projection of looming deficits assumes state aid declining by -1.1% per year  while over the last 10 years it has grown at 2.4% We want to help voters judge whether this is a real crisis or “a crisis of assumptions.” 

Show that there are good alternatives to a mega override that protect the schools and preserve the town.  For 10 out of the last 13 years, the early draft of the town budget showed a major gap between the needs of the schools and available revenue. In 2011, for example, the gap was approximately $2 million in early spring. It was closed by identifying $1.3 million in additional revenue and $564,000 in cost savings. We will show how this approach can be applied again.

Remind voters that the ballot question is on the back of the ballot. Voters need to turn over the ballot and vote (ideally No) to have a voice. 

Belmont’s ‘No’ on Override Committee Warrants Attention

Photo: A generic design asking for a no vote.

It has no lawn signs (yet), nor a web site (so far) and is keeping its campaign close to the vest (for now).

But last week, a group of Belmont residents made it official: it will campaign to defeat the $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 7 Town Election ballot.

But unlike former override opponents who are content with authoring missives that populate the letters page of a weekly newspaper, this ensemble – officially known as the “Vote No on Ballot Question 1 Committee” – carries far more heft than any group in the past.

A cursory glance of those identified as ‘no’ supporters quickly reveals a common core; they are or have been members of the town’s influential Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial watchdog. The ‘No’ chair, Liz Allison, was for several years its head while ‘No’ treasurer, Raffi Manjikian, is joined by the Warrant Committee’s vice chair Robert Sarno and member Jim Gammill on the ‘No’ campaign.

In addition to his work on the Warrant Committee, Manjikian was one of the prime movers in the successful 2013 effort by Waverley Square residents to pass a general residence demolition delay bylaw protecting single-family homes from the wrecking ball.

To be fair, membership on the Warrant Committee doesn’t lead one exclusively onto the ‘No’ committee. Ellen Schreiber, a leader of ‘Yes for Belmont’ which supports the override, was recently selected to the Warrant Committee by Town Moderator Michael Widmer (The moderator selects residents to the committee) while current Chair Michael Libenson has written advocating for the three-year, $4.5 million increase.

The group – which includes Sarno’s wife, Judith Ananian Sarno, and Dawn MacKerron – has been quietly flying under the radar, collecting email address and putting out the word to those who will vote against the override.

This week, the first arguments from the ‘no’ campaign has emerged in public statements by the group, less than three weeks before the election. A “guest commentary” by Manjikian circulating throughout town via email provided a glimpse at the committee’s chief arguments. (The complete commentary is here: Letters-to-Editor_drafts-2

“As a parent of four children, I try my best to lead by example. Choices sometimes may not be popular, but one needs to stand for up for what he or she believes and at times to call upon others to join in. Voting ‘NO’ on Question 1 is not a vote against the town or the school system; it is a vote against how we have chosen to manage,” writes Manjikian.

In his statement, Masjikian argues the town doesn’t have a revenue problem as stated by the Financial Task Force which recommended the override, “we have a management problem,” specifically in managing expenses, pointing to four projects residents voted to pass in the past year-and-a-half costing taxpayers $12 million.

By voting no, “[we] will open the discourse to a balanced approach toward crafting a multi-year plan that impacts both the revenue and expense side of our budget.”

Manjikian rejected claims by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan that turning down the override would have dire consequences to the Belmont School District; reducing classes, firing teachers, greater teacher-to-student ratios and forcing more free time onto students.

“We don’t agree that a “NO” vote will have a detrimental impact of education in Belmont,” he said. “We need to put this in perspective – voters are being asked to fund a ‘Mega Override’ of $4.5 million when the draft school budget is looking for $1.7 million,” Manjikian told the Belmontonian.

“If voters reject the override ballot question, the [selectmen], [warrant committee], [school committee] will do what has been done many, many times; identify revenue opportunities and cost saving in the draft budget that will allow the critical needs of the schools to be funded,” he said.

Only then, if a gap in revenue to expenses remains, “a ‘right sized’ override should be called for to support that need,” said Masjikian.

“Going to the taxpayers as a first step is just not right. We need to bear in mind that we will be going to the voters for more tax dollars in support of the numerous capital projects among which is the high school – the  debt exclusion would be $70 million, which could be as soon as [fiscal year] ’18,” he said.

As the No campaign has begun to surface, those supporting the override believe their assumptions simply don’t hold water.

“It borders on shocking that the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign are suggesting another band-aid fix to Belmont’s long-term financial challenges,” Sara Masucci, co-chair of YES for Belmont campaign. 

“In Belmont, we love to complain about the yearly “financial crisis,” yet that is exactly what they are doing – again. Belmont’s voters have an opportunity now to change that; to take a smart, fiscally responsible and proactive approach to town management,” she added.

Masucci said the issue before Belmont voters is not “a management problem” but a culture of short-term thinking.

“Rejecting the override is just kicking the can down the road, they make no proposals to address the real issues and they reject this carefully developed multi-year solution. This reckless approach – throwing around blame and avoiding tough choices – risks Belmont’s children’s futures,” she said.

 

 

And after that evaluation if there still is a gap, a “right sized” override should be called for to support that need. Going to the taxpayers as a first step is just not right. We need to bear in mind  that we will be going to the voters for more tax dollars in support of the numerous capital projects among which is the high school – the  debt exclusion would be $70 million, which could be as soon as FY18.

 

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Selectmen, Task Force Hosting Pair of Precinct Meetings on Budget, Override

The Belmont Board of Selectmen in conjunction with the Financial Task Force will host a pair of informational precinct meetings for Town Meeting Members and interested residents on the fiscal 2016 budget, the Financial Task Force report and the Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question.

The sessions will be held at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St., on the following dates and times:

  • Thursday, March 12 at 7 p.m.
  • Monday, March 30 at 7 p.m.

Budget documents and the Financial Task Force Report are available in the Projects, Reports, and Presentations section of the Town website .

Anyone with questions about the precinct meetings should contact the Office of the Board of Selectmen/Town Administrator at 617-993-2610 or e-mail selectmen@belmont-ma.gov

BREAKING: Financial Task Force Endorses $4.5 Million Prop 2 1/2 Budget Override for April

After a year of meetings and extensive research, the town’s Financial Task Force voted provisionally to recommend the Belmont Board of Selectmen to accept a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 budget override to stabilize the town and school budgets over the next three years.

The recommendation by the 13 member group will be presented to the Selectmen at its scheduled Monday, Jan. 26 meeting in Belmont Town Hall at 8 a.m. The first date the Selectmen can accept the task forces’ proposal and set a date to vote on the measure at its Feb. 2 meeting.

Mark Paolillo, the task force chair and a member of the Board of Selectmen, said the override vote should “absolutely” be on the Town Election ballot on Tuesday, April 7.

“We want the most residents voting on the measure,” Paolillo told the Belmontonian Friday.

A more detailed article on the proposed Prop 2 1/2 Budget Override will be in the Belmontonian on Monday morning, Jan. 26.

If successful, the property tax bill on a house valued at $844,000 – the “average” value of residential property in the town – will increase by approximately $675, according to Town Treasurer Floyd Carman.

The most recent attempted override in Belmont was in June of 2010 when a $2 million measure was defeated 3,431 to 3,043 with 40 percent of eligible residents voting. The most recent successful override measure occurred in June, 2002 when voters OK’ed $2.4 million for operating costs, 2,938 to 2,728.

“This is not an easy request,” Paolillo said of asking residents to find the money to meet a shortfall in revenue.

The need for an override is due to “a perfect storm” of limited current sources of revenue set against mounting expenses and the needs of future capital projects, he said.

The most significant cost drivers facing the town is within the School District as exploding enrollment numbers – more than 300 children have entered the district in the past two years – and skyrocketing expenditures associated with Special Education and other state mandated programs show no end to their rapid increases, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan told Friday’s meeting.

(Read about the current $500,000 budget deficit the school district is facing here.)

While expenses increase, the task force found “there are no magic bullets” to fill the expanding gap between what’s coming into Belmont’s coffers and the money rushing out, said member Paul Lisanke.

With 80 percent of the town’s revenue coming from property taxes and a significant 9 percent from state aid which has been decreasing in real terms for the past three decades, the areas to find extra cash are limited and not significant enough to raise the money needed.

In addition to the operating budget, the town must be prepared to sink some big bucks into capital projects and repairs, according to Task Force member and Capital Budget’s Chair Anne Marie Mahoney. These include a new police station and Department of Public Works facility, preparing for new High School and increased money for roads and sidewalks.

“We are now talking about safety issues because we haven’t spent the money we should have,” said Mahoney.

According to the Task Force, the town will find itself in a cumulative fiscal chasm of $4,448,000 by fiscal 2017.

A successful override will allow the town to provide funds to the school district to meet the increase in enrollment, meet special education actual costs and maintain Belmont schools as a first-rate educational community. It will so provide funds for sidewalks and streets as well as make capital improvements neglected in the past years.

“We can’t look to the state or external measures to fix our problem,” said Paolillo. “We are clearly in a deficit in fiscal ’16, ’17 and ’18.”