Reconvened Town Meeting To Determine What To Do With Override Funds

Photo: Belmont Town Meeting.

As the annual legislative meeting reconvenes on Monday, June 1, at 7 p.m. at the Chenery Middle School to debate and vote on the town’s finances, the nearly 300 member will be asked to decided where to place the remainder of the $4.5 million raised after voters approved the Proposition 2 1/2 override at April’s Town Election.

With the focus of the night on the town’s operating budget, the one article that is capturing a great deal of interest is Article 12, transferring $1,674,069 of the override amount into a general stabilization fund. If approved, the funds will remain there until Town Meeting, by a two-thirds margin, approves any transfer of funds.

The key word is “if” because there is a possibility that Town Meeting might not approve the transfer of the funds in the first place. There have been rumblings by some override opponents to vote against Article 12. Since the $1.6 million would not be appropriated, that amount would not be levied in taxes in fiscal 2016, effectively providing ratepayers a small “rebate” on what they had been anticipating in taxes beginning July 1.

Warrant Committee member Adam Dash’s amendment to the fiscal 2016 budget appropriations article will be brought before Town Meeting if Article 13 fails. It would raise the $1.6 million from somewhere in the budget and place the funds into the Warrant Committee Reserve Account. The committee would sit on the amount for the entire year and allow it to become part of the town’s “free cash” amount. So at next year’s Town Meeting, those funds would be placed in the General Stabilization Fund.

“This would preserve the will of the voters by levying the full amount of override funds,” said Dash. If Article 13 passes, Dash will drop his amendment.

But before Dash’s amendment moves forward, there are a pair of amendments sponsored by former School Committee member Kevin Cunningham, on the Article 13. The two amendment would, in their way, take $250,000 of the amount and place it into the Special Education Stabilization Fund, thus providing $1,424,069 into the general fund.

According to Cunningham, the quarter million dollars being directed to the Sped Stabilization account simply replenishes the line item after it was drained by that same amount in April to help close a $500,000 deficit in this school year’s budget.

Since there is “the highest likelihood” the Sped Stabilization will be needed in fiscal ’16, Cunningham targeted fund to an area where the need will be greatest.

It doesn’t appear the amendment will find much support from the Board of Selectmen or the Warrant Committee since, as Board of Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady said last month, “we made a promise to the voters that every dollar would be set aside for the purposes stated on the ballot” which included school deficit, capital budget bonding and streets and sidewalks.

While it doesn’t appear that Town Meeting will take up five hot-button articles – four citizen petitions and a request to reconsider the “solar” article – being brought to the assembly by newly-elected Selectman Jim Williams until the third night of the June agenda, his presence will be felt with a second amendment to Article 12 sponsored by a slew of Town Meeting members.

Dubbed by Dash as the “Warrant Committee’s summer project,” the amendment directs the Warrant Committee to produce an update report on the town’s current pension funding schedule, which targets $6 million in fiscal 2016 and increased by seven percent annually until 2027.

The Warrant Committee will take a look at different strategies to mitigate the impact the pension has on the town’s annual expenditures.

“[Williams] is the imputes for this project. And it’s something that should be done as being part of good fiscal management,” said Dash two weeks ago.

Opinion: Chenery Teachers See Firsthand Impacts of Budget Cuts

Photo: Foreign language learning.

As experienced foreign language teachers who have each been teaching  at the Chenery Middle School for more than a decade, we have seen firsthand the harmful effects in our classrooms of the ongoing town budget crisis.

Over the years, class sizes have increased greatly, limiting the amount of personal attention that each student receives.  Special educators are not available during foreign language instructional times, so the foreign language teacher is solely responsible for the learning of all students at all times.  Increasing student enrollment, along with plans to cut one section of foreign language, will continue to exacerbate this issue.

Another troubling trend affecting all students at the middle school is the dramatic increase in the size of study halls. Some study halls in the middle school have 90 students or more, and it is not unusual for a student to have two study halls in one day. In a large group study hall, only two teachers are attending to a very large group of students. These large group study halls are held in the auditorium or the cafeteria, spaces which lack access to technology and also are not conducive to productivity and self-directed learning. The increase in study halls is a clear result of lack of funding for our school.  This hurts students directly because they have less direct instructional time. It also hurts them indirectly because teachers are responsible for covering these study halls when, previously, this time (which amounts to 100 minutes in each six-day cycle) was spent on personal planning and collaborating with department members and teams.

Lack of funding for our schools has also resulted in the cutting of important coursework for our students. Even though studies have shown that the earlier children begin to learn a foreign language, the better chance they have to become fluent, Belmont Schools, facing budget constraints in the 2013-14 scchool year,  eliminated the 5th grade foreign language program, which had existed for almost ten years. The 5th grade program was an important introduction to all four foreign languages offered: Spanish, French, Latin and Chinese. As a result, students now begin their foreign language studies a full year later and also must choose a language to study after minimal exposure (a brief 15 minute introduction as opposed to the former 15 lessons). On the other end of the spectrum, without an override, fifth year and AP foreign language courses will no longer be offered. This will deny Belmont High School students the opportunity to advance in their foreign language studies.

Another negative consequence of the budget shortfall is the slashing of funds for professional development work. Not only are teachers not fully reimbursed for the costs of their professional courses and workshops, but also substitute coverage is no longer available. In our case, this severely limits our ability to take part in many opportunities to learn how other innovative foreign language teachers are engaging their students.

Taking all of this into account, it is difficult to imagine how the students in our classrooms and in our school would thrive under additional budget cuts.  We ask you to support the override so that Belmont can continue to provide a quality education for all students.

Beth Manca (grade 6, 7 & 8 Latin)     

Amy Sánchez (grade 6 & 7 Spanish)

Elizabeth Pruitt (grade 6 & 7 French and Spanish)


Start Up: Group Seeking ‘Yes’ on Override Holds Initial Gathering

Photo: Residents who came to the Belmont Hill School to discuss passing the Prop. 2 1/2 override in April.

The snowfall that arrived Sunday afternoon, March 1, made driving difficult, particularly attempting to putter up the Prospect Street’s steep incline.

But the weather and the climb did not deter approximately 120 residents who braved the conditions to drive to the Belmont Hill School’s Jordan Athletic Center to listen to the leaders of a newly-formed community group.

Its message: Pass the override.

Yes for Belmont is seeking to marshal support for the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override – recommended by the Financial Task Force and placed on the April 7 Town Election ballot by the Board of Selectmen – in an effort to forestall potentially deep cuts in next year’s budget including laying off 22 full-time positions in the school district.
Not a rally nor a policy debate, the half-hour meeting had the feel of a “meet and greet” where supporters could get a chance to get to know the Yes for Belmont leadership team and ask questions about .

Sign-up sheets and forms on what residents are willing to do (holding signs, being part of an outreach team) where on tables for attendees while orange yard signs – that can be found on snow drifts around Belmont – were ready to be taken home.

For Sara Masucci, a seasoned political campaigner and co-chair of Yes for Belmont, the need for an operational override – which permits the town to exceed the 2 1/2 percent annual limit on the increase in taxes a municipality is permitted – is real; deteriorating roads, exploding enrollment in schools with additional costs for special education and English learners has overwhelmed current efforts to pay for it.

“We’re all here because this is a very big deal and we are deeply concerned and we want to make sure that we do what we need to do to make the quality of this town stay at the level that it should be,” said Masucci.

Yet the plan is not to push too hard, be too passionate when discussing the need for additional tax revenue as those residents less supportive of the override “to claim that we are being ‘too emotional’, that we are overblowing the issue, that we are creating a panic,” said Masucci.

Masucci said there are several avenues for residents to take to support the effort; personal networking with friends and colleagues, writing letters of support to media outlets and getting out the vote.

“That’s when will be counting on you, the people, to get out there and make those connections and make that final push to make sure that person you know who supports us but doesn’t really vote gets out there on Tuesday,” Masucci said.

Lars Kellogg-Stedman came to the meeting because of his concern for the future of education in Belmont.

“I have two kids at the Burbank [Elementary] and they’ve really been enjoying their time here and seeing the depth of cuts that are possible if the funding doesn’t come through makes me sad for them because they will be missing a lot of opportunities,” he said.

“I’m going to be writing letters and standing on street corners with signs while talking with all the parents that I know,” he said.

“This is important to our family,” Kellogg-Stedman said.

Schools Budget Deficit Fix: Teacher Layoffs, Increased Class Sizes, Lost Ground

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School will lose a third-grade teacher with the acceptance of the available revenue budget in fiscal year 2016.

When asked her reaction to the presentation by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan on the details of cuts facing the district, Jamie Shea at first just shook her head.

For Shea and others who attended the Belmont School Committee meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 24, the impact on education in bridging the anticipated $1.7 million facing the district in the coming fiscal year was akin to listening to an eulogy for the reputation of a proud district.

“It’s extremely sobering to hear the potential cuts we all are facing,” said Shea, who is the current president of the Foundation for Belmont Education, the group that supports excellence and enrichment in Belmont’s six schools.

“It would be transformative to the district. It will impact every single student in the district. Every single one,” she said.

Phelan said the district – which he has been in charge since July – will not be the same to the one which many families moved to Belmont to attend.

“The Belmont Public Schools will struggle deeply to meet the expectations of their students and families that they so rightly deserve. If there were a headline from this presentation, it would be ‘Available Budget Impact Students Experiences Negatively,” Phelan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

The cuts are necessary due to a historic surge in enrollment, higher expenditures for special education and unfunded state mandates.

During Tuesday meeting, Phelan walked the committee and residents through the components in each school group – elementary, middle school and high school – where savings will be made.

The cuts, which were compiled by the Leadership Council – made up of school principals, senior staff and curriculum directors – are significant and deep by most measures.

(The presentation can be found on the school district’s website.)

Most of the retrenchment, $1.3 million, will come in personnel with the elimination of 22 full-time equivalent professional positions, with the remaining amount coming in less support for instructional material, personal development and facilities and increase fees for student actives and full-day kindergarten.
The cuts include:

  • In the elementary schools, the elimination of more than seven aides, the Butler, Burbank and Wellington will lose guidance counselors, a reduction in music education and physical education and the firing of a third grade teacher at the Wellington.
  • At the Chenery, there will be wholesale cuts to the long-standing team teaching model in English, math, science social studies and world language in sixth through eighth grades, the eliminate of all eighth grade music and art electives, cutting sections of small group reading and a large reduction in library services.
  • Belmont High School will see the elimination of English, math, social studies and fine and performing arts teacher while all the World Language teachers will be reduced to part-timers.

District wide, the science director will be let go as will a preschool teacher. A reduction of instructional material and supplies, facilities, and professional development while student and rental fees are increased.

In total, Belmont will lose more than 14 teaching positions and nearly ten aides.

For classroom teachers, the cuts will fundamentally change the relationship with their students, said John Sullivan, the president of the Belmont Education Association, which represents Belmont teachers and aides in salary negotiations.

“You can’t get to know [your students] personally, to know when they are upset about something and then reach out to support them. It changes the entire student experience,” said the Belmont resident who teaches at Belmont High School.

While the cuts in teaching staff and other savings will drain the system of its red ink, the impact on students will be significant, said Phelan. For example:

  • Three of every four elementary students, about 1,300, will be in taught in classes exceeding the school committee’s guidelines for effective education.
  • Junior and seniors in high school – more than 600 pupils currently enrolled – will be limited to five courses in a seven-course schedule.
  • The average class size for math and English at the high school will be more than 27, effecting 1,250 students.
  • More than 300 seniors will be unable to take courses that will impact their chances being accepted at high-performing colleges and universities.
  • More than 300 students in the middle school will be heading to study halls due to the cuts in fine and performing arts.

The cut of the science director will seriously delay the district’s plan to move forward with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related courses which national leaders are calling crucial for all citizens to know.

And the loss of aides and guidance councilors in the four elementary schools will reduce the effectiveness of the district’s Response to Intervention services that identifies educational challenges for young students as well as addressing the social and emotional needs of students.

The magnitude of the cuts was unsettling for those who oversee education in Belmont.

“I think it has the potential to really decimate the system,” said Laurie Slap, School Committee Chair.

“What struck me was that one of our colleagues said that it was so sad to see educational opportunities just shrink for our students from K to 12 especially in the high school. Five courses? That isn’t what anyone expects from this district.”

Phelan said the district, and especially Belmont High School, has been worn down over time by trimming courses and reducing staff. With this major hit

“The reductions we are proposing and the elimination of positions are rooted in the methodology in what we need to do first and what we would like to do second. Our ‘likes to do’ are now are stables and cores – the everyday things – in districts that surround us. We will lose even more ground with the proposed budget,” said Phelan.

For Phelan, the School Committee and many attending the meeting, the only way to preserve the district’s reputation is for the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override recommended by the Financial Task Force in January.

“I support the Task Force’s recommendation for the fiscal health of the entire town. If that fiscal health is brought back to a certain level through an injection of funds that goes to sidewalks streets police, fire, and schools, the whole town is a better place,” said Phelan.

At the end of the meeting, Slap said that everyone in town needs to know what the choices they face and everyone needs to get informed to understand what the cuts means to the district.

“It’s important that people get informed and understand what the reductions will bring if we do not pass the … override and get to the polls,” Shea told the Belmontonian.

“Hopefully we can get a coalition of different coalition of different constituent groups that can work cooperatively to make sure our students get the best education they can,” said Sullivan.

‘A Brave Decision’: Selectmen Place $4.5M Override Vote on Town Election Ballot

Photo: Belmont Superintendent John Phelan speaking to the Belmont Board of Selectmen and the School Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 17.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen unanimously voted Tuesday night, Feb. 18, to place before voters a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override that will coincide with the annual Town Election set for Tuesday, April 7.

“I think we should make a brave decision to place the appropriate override on the ballot,” said Selectman Sami Baghdady as the three-member board decided not to delay a decision on the override until next week’s selectmen’s meeting.

“There, it’s on the ballot,” said Andy Rojas, chair of the board to the applause from two dozen residents and members of the Belmont Education Association, the union representing teachers and staff in the district.

This is the first override question facing Belmont voters since the unsuccessful attempt in June 2010 when residents rejected a $2.5 million initiative targeting schools and roads, 53 percent to 47 percent. A $2 million roads override was defeated by the same percentage in 2008.

The vote came after a joint meeting of the Selectmen and Belmont School Committee which heard Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan present the stark budgetary options facing the school district in the coming fiscal year which starts on July 1.

Under a budget relying on anticipated revenues for fiscal 2016, the school district will face a $1.7 million funding gap that will be resolved by eliminating 22 full-time teaching and staff positions, allow class sizes to exceed the district’s benchmarks for effective teaching and increase fees for all student activities.

“We really felt that this was important for Belmont,” Rojas told the Belmontonian after the vote.

“We hear all sides [of the override issue], and I certainly understand and we will try to mitigate the impact on the elderly and those on fixed incomes. However, once you see the presentation by [Phelan] and where the available budget leads you, it’s almost negligent not to consider an override,” said Rojas.

“Whatever the outcome of the vote, the efforts of the Financial Task Force will not die,” said Baghdady.

Before voting for the measure, the selectmen each spoke of the override as just one component of a wider approach to tackling the structural deficit facing the town and schools, recommendations raised in the final report of the Financial Task Force, the Selectmen appointed committee that spent a year analyzing Belmont’s long-range financial outlook.

“We are taking all the Task Force’s recommendations very seriously. It will include reforms both structurally and non-structural, it’s creativity on how we run both government and schools and, of course, making sure we fund the programs that are obviously the key part of the override,” said Rojas.

The vote came after a joint meeting of the Selectmen, and Belmont School Committee heard Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan present the budgetary options facing the school district in the coming fiscal year which starts on July 1.

“I should know this as this is the fourth time in six days I’ve made the presentation,” said Phelan told the joint meeting.

Reiterating in detail the pressures facing the school district in his meeting with the School Committee last Thursday, Feb. 12, (see “Belmont Schools Face ‘Significant, Negative Impact’ in Fiscal ’16 Budget; Loss of 22 Positions, Larger Class Sizes” Feb. 12) Phelan presented a stark reality for education in Belmont under an available revenue budget in the next school year: Staff cuts, greater class sizes, less material and supplies, an increase in free time and study halls for middle and high school students and higher fees for students and parents.

Speaking of the student fee increase, families with two children in athletics, a club, and the arts, “you very quickly get to $6,000 to $7,000,” said Phelan.

Phelan told the board the cuts will have a human face to them at next week’s School Committee when he and the Leadership Council – made up of senior staff, principals and department and curriculum heads – pinpoint specific positions and areas which will be eliminated.

“It’s a very disturbing picture,” said Phelan, noting that 80 percent of the school budget “is people so the biggest part of the cuts will be from there.”

As with the previous presentations, Phelan told the meeting the Task Force’s recommendation of a $4.5 million override to stabilize town expenditures will allow the district to keep existing staff and teachers, meet state-mandated required hirings due to a doubling of students requiring English Learning tutoring as well as new hires to meet the exploding enrollment and reduce the free time an ever increasing number of middle and high school students are handed.

“There are no new bikes” in the budget with the $4.5 million increase, said Phelan; the district will not introduce new classes, only retaining the current level of instruction.

“We do believe that we are at a crossroads,” Phelan said of the district, adding that he and the Leadership Council “believe the town needs to make an investment in the schools.”

During a citizen comment period, several teachers and residents expressed their support for the override to assist them in educating Belmont students.

“We teach children, I teach children,” said Dori Pulizzi, a seven-year veteran teacher at the Chenery Middle School. But the only way to effectively do so is with a ratio that she can meet the social/emotional needs of each student. With 28 in a class, Pulizzi said she can only give each student a minute of her time within a 50-minute class after providing the class lesson.

Suzanne Pomponio, a third grade teacher at the Winn Brook with 23 students in her class, said teaching “is just getting harder for students to do what is expected with the demands of Common Core [being introduced to Belmont schools].”

“It’s more stressful for the students, and they need that emotional support but we have less and less time to provide it,” said Pomponio.

After the vote, John Sullivan, the president of the BEA and a Belmont resident, said a vote for the override “is a chance to maintain quality of our outstanding schools.”

“Now we need to get community support, to work together to provide Belmont teachers what they need,” said Sullivan.


A November Override Vote Now ‘Nil’ Due to State, Town Deadlines

The hope of advocates for Belmont schools and town services to place a multi-year operational Proposition 2 1/2 override on the November ballot has been quashed by a combination of a tight state deadline and insufficient time for a committee reviewing the towns financial health to complete its work in time, according to the Selectmen’s chair.

According to Brian McNiff, spokesperson of the Massachusetts Secretary of State office, the secretary’s deadline for reviewing and approving the Proposition 2 1/2 override language so it can be placed on the November 4 state election ballot is August 6.

“[The town] has to have all the work done by that date so we can do the legal review required,” said McNiff.

Andy Rojas, chair of the Belmont Board of Selectmen – the municipal body under state law that must approve both the language and determine whether the town requires an override – told the Belmontonian Wednesday, June 11, a summer cutoff point from the state on top of notification requirements on the Town Clerk all but dooms the proposed November override ballot question.

The early August state drop dead date will not allow the Financial Task Force, a 13-member “mega” committee created last year to conduct a comprehensive review of the town’s finances, highlight possible revenue streams and develop a long-range financial and capital improvement plan, any chance of completing the analysis the Selectmen would require.

“The chances that the Financial Task Force … finishing any of its work to the point where we can reach any clarity on an override is now apparently nil,” said Rojas.

Municipalities must follow a precise list of procedures mandated by the state Secretary of State and the Department of Revenue to place an override question on the ballot.

“It is a very strict on what we require from the towns,” said McNiff, as municipalities follow a template on the why, how much and when of an override request.

Under state law, a Proposition 21⁄2 referenda questions can be placed on the state biennial – every two years – election ballot which has become an important point by Belmont override advocates who hope to benefit from strong voter turnout in a November election with state-wide races – including what many predict will be a competitive race for governor – on the ballot.

“However, those questions must be submitted to the Secretary of State for certification by the first Wednesday in August preceding the [biennial] election. G.L. c. 59, § 21C(i),” according to language on the Revenue Department’s web site. (

In addition to state requirements, Belmont’s Town Clerk “must receive written notice of the referendum at least 35 days before the date of the election. The vote to place a question on the ballot must take place in sufficient time to meet this advance notice requirement,” reads the regulations.

While the Task Force has been working since the beginning of the year on the town’s finances, “they are still working through the facts,” said Rojas.

Rojas said he continues to support placing an override on the ballot “once we have all the information” to determine the need to permanently raise the tax levy.

“I think … the earliest voters will have a chance to vote on the override will be the [annual] Town Election in April,” said Rojas.

Selectmen Chair: 2 1/2 Override ‘Possible’ on November Ballot

Belmont Board of Selectmen Chair Andy Rojas said he is receptive to a Proposition 2 1/2 override to secure long-term funding for town and school needs being placed on the November election ballot.

“I’m going to be pushing the Financial Task Force to move their work a little faster so we can hopefully see an override vote in November,” Rojas told the Belmontonian on Wednesday, June 4 before the final night of the annual Town Meeting.

Election day for state races in Massachusetts is Tuesday, Nov. 4, less than five months away.

“Now is the time to act,” he said.

But an early date for an override, which many advocates believe is critical to secure its passage, ultimately depends on how quickly the nearly year-old task force can complete its mission of producing a comprehensive report, said Rojas.

“We need the facts before us,” he said, adding that the task force’s report should be presented before the Selectmen and the public “at least a month” before any date is selected for the override vote.

Rojas response came after comments last week by several Town Meeting members and from outgoing “interim” Belmont Schools Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston expressing concerns that both schools and town services need an infusion of funding to support needed academic courses and increased teaching levels to match anticipated enrollment growth that currently exceeds the available revenue from the town’s annual 2 1/2 percent increase in tax revenue, new growth and state aid.

” … [I]t’s time for us in the community to turn to our neighbors and say ‘This isn’t right.’ We need to fully fund our schools,” said Christine Kotchem at last week’s Town Meeting.

While the fiscal 2015 School budget, now $46.2 million, saw a four percent increase in available revenue from the previous year, the “wish” list created by the school department of teachers, courses and material needed to keep the schools within a top-tier Level 3 district, according to Kingston who made the statement at Town Meeting.

Rojas said Kingston’s statement concerning the need for an operational override “was the first actual request the board has had in the past four year.”

“I think we need to take it very seriously and I do,” said Rojas.

It has been a dozen years since Belmont voters approved an override, for $2.4 million in June 2002, with the last three attempts, in 2006, 2008 and 2010, defeated by close margins.

While flexible to override advocates in placing the measure in November when voters will also be casting ballots for state-wide offices including a contest governor’s race, Rojas said the board and the public should first review the recommendations from the Task Force, the 13-member “mega” committee created last year charged with creating a comprehensive review of the town’s finances, discover possible new revenue streams and develop a long-range financial and capital improvement plan.

“The preferred course of action is for the Financial Task Force to do its work, create a report and that would inform the decision of the board (of selectmen),” said Rojas.

“If they can do it quicker, great. It all depends on that,” said Rojas.

Yet Rojas also acknowledged that the task force will be required to do a great deal of work during the summer months when meetings and report schedules are impacted by vacations and travel plans of the 13 members.

“Summers are always tough on committees,” said Rojas.