Select Board Sends $8.4M Override To Voters With A Compact In Tow

Photo: The Select Board voting to present a $8.4 million override to voters at the town’s annual Election in April

After Belmont’s Select Board voted unanimously on Tuesday morning, Jan. 30 to place an $8.4 million override on the ballot at the annual Town Election, Board Chair Roy Epstein believed their decision will be seen by the town’s voters as the necessary course to take.

“We’re relying basically on our experiences what might work,” said Epstein after the vote. “Some people have indicated they would like it to be smaller [amount]. Others said they would like it to be larger. So I’m hoping that means we landed at the right place.”

After nearly six months of meetings, public events, and the decision to pegging how much the “ask” of residents came down to two competing figures: a $7.5 million override that would protect the current level of full-time positions in the town and schools, and $8.4 million, which will allow the town and schools to invest in specific area. In the end, the Select Board settled on what they consider is necessary to carry the town over the next three years.

“We appreciate the concerns that some residents have expressed to me,” said Mark Paolillo, who will be retiring from the board at the April election. “But I think [the override] is absolutely needed in order for us to continue to serve the residents and provide services that they expect.”

“This is not an irresponsible number,” said Elizabeth Dionne to the half dozen residents attending the Town Hall meeting. “It is a painful number.”

According to Jennifer Hewitt, the town’s financial director and assistant town administrator, with the town committed to the override, the town and school district can now release their fiscal year 2025 budgets, on Friday, Feb. 2. The Select Board, School and Warrant Committee will meet Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall for the fourth Budget Summit at which time the fiscal ’25 budget will be presented.

The expected override is by no means a surprise, as the town has been struggling for more than a decade with a structural budget deficit created by ever-increasing expenses and a difficulty to raise sufficient revenue with annual property tax increases capped at 2 1/2 percent. Add to that, the board has inherited a number of costly such as a large and growing pension fund liability.

With a $6 million cliff facing the town in fiscal ’25, even a “level” budget that seeks to keep personnel and services at the previous year’s proportions would require a significant increase in funding.

While the funds will fill the budget deficit in the next three years, the board views the largest override in Belmont’s history in terms of an investment that in the long run will benefit both the town and schools. Epstein noted “a potential for restructuring certain activities to free up monies to deploy them more effectively.” Case in point: School Superintendent Jill Geiser plans to use the extra funding to lay a foundation with added Special Education staffing and planning with the goal to reduce the number of students being placed “out-of-district” for their schooling, which Dionne said is the greatest financial burdens facing future school budgets.

Agreeing to the larger override amount “is the starting point of making that investment with potential long-term benefits,” said Warrant Committee Chair Geoff Lubien.

“That’s why I believe the $8.4 million is necessary to make that even a possibility,” said Epstein.

The alternative to the override would be cataclysmic to all municipal and educational functions in Belmont. A forecasting exercise on the impact of a “no” vote would force painful cuts in staffing and programs in public safety, public works, library and all other town services while the schools would see significant reduction in staff as students will be without extra curriculum activities, the elimination of popular classes and higher students-to-teacher ratios.

“It’s really easy to destroy institutions, it’s very difficult to rebuild,” said Dionne. “If we don’t have a successful override, we will lose a cadre of talent we cannot replace easily. It will cost us far more to rebuild and to maintain.”

Acknowledging the large “ask” of residents, the Select Board will attempt to placate voters anxiety voting for the override by “hammering out” what is being called a compact with the community. Under this informal agreement, the board, school committee and other town entities will work together to implement policies – such as revamping zoning bylaws to facilitate business creation – and initiatives to manage expenses in an attempt to “bend the curve” of ever rising costs all the while look for ways to maximize revenues.

“What we [as a town] have to be … is faster, better, smarter,” said Dionne.

Under the compact, the Select Board will commit funds to specific public concerns. One discussed Tuesday is appropriating override dollars to repair and replace the town’s threadbare and increasingly unsafe sidewalks, which have been a lament among residents for nearly two decades.

The compact will also “force us to be more fiscally disciplined” using one-time funds such as free cash and from out-of-town sources such as government grants, according to Lubien.

Health Board ‘Strongly Recommends’ Masks In Classrooms As CDC Endorses Coverings In Schools

Photo: A continuation of the current mask mandate is being proposed by the Board of Health

After an hour long debate, the Belmont Board of Health voted unanimously on July 26 to “strongly recommend” a universal indoor masking requirement for students and staff at Belmont’s public and private schools to begin at the start of the new school year in September.

The decision came about 24 hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, July 27, endorsed the wearing of masks by teachers, staff members, students and visitors in schools regardless of vaccination status and the rate of community transmission of the virus. 

Monday’s 3-0 vote came after the board nearly approved a mandatory mask requirement but took a step back from the more restrictive sanctions to allow the Belmont School Committee to have its own discussion before accepting or rejecting the board’s decision.

NOTE: Belmont Select Board will discuss a possible town-wide mask mandate at its Monday, August 2 meeting.

But the board’s chair made it clear that it would come back with more definitive mask measures if it believes the school committee will not commit to a clear masking policy.

“[The School Committee] must know what we’re leading up to so a strong recommendation is pretty strong,” said Board Chair Donna David.

The board’s action comes as the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant is causing positive cases and hospitalizations to increase after the rates of infection has been dropping over the past four months. The CDC noted in its revised guidance of this week that those fully vaccinated and become infected with the Delta variant can harbor large amounts of the virus as seen in unvaccinated people, thus becoming spreaders of the disease. Those people should return to wearing masks indoors in certain situations, including when vulnerable people are present.

Wesley Chin, the director of the Belmont Health Department, told the board parents were looking for direction from the town on masks as schools are set to open in six weeks. David told the approximately 30 people attending on Zoom that the board’s decision would follow current “scientific knowledge” rather than being decided by a “popular vote.”

“We’re doing it in the best interest of the public health for everyone,” she said.

Vice Chair Julie Lemay said the recent jump in cases in the past week after a relative quiet summer “this information is evolving and it’s evolving quickly.” She believed that to prioritizing moving kids back in the school and keeping schools open, “using mitigation strategies including mask wearing is going to be important” with the knowledge that the policy will be reevaluated during the school year.

Adrienne Allen pointed to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that stressed that if school districts’ goal is “to keep all of our children in person in school all year, universal masking for staff and children is the way to do it.” Until questions of vaccine effectiveness and other issues are addressed, “it’s better to stay the course, follow the AAP and have masking until more is known,” said Allen.

In addition the board members, Director of Nursing Services Beth Rumley spoke on the current mitigation measures the school district have established for the summer session including masks, following up on all absentees and testing for anyone who is out sick. “I hear the concerns about masking but when you have a high volume of students and you have masking, it works,” she said. Nor is masking the only mitigation that needs to be concerned about including checking students and staff who have symptoms and creating a plan to return to school. “We’re going to make decisions with everyone’s safety in mind,” said Rumley.

The majority of residents who spoke Monday were in favor of the masking option. For Mariola Magovcevic, a mask requirement is the only way she will send her two children – one who is at high risk in catching infections – to elementary school in September. Speaking on making mask wearing an option, Magovcevic said such an action “does not protect me from children from spreading the virus who are not wearing a mask.”

Playing roulette with other people’s lives

Heather Rubeski said she’s not worried about her children being infected, “I’m worried about what they’re going to bring home” with her husband’s inoculation just 60 percent effective due to existing conditions. “It’s playing roulette with other people’s lives,” she said. Speaking to residents who have told her that their children “have suffered enough” by learning at home and following mask and other mitigation strategies at schools, Rubeski spoke how her niece and nephew lost their father to COVID as a true cost of suffering.

“It is not suffering to wear a mask for the vast majority of people. It’s unfortunate that as a community we can’t come together a little better and to this one basic thing that’s going to protect so many people … and considering all the families and not just the children in school but teacher families and our families,” Rubeski told the board.

There was not unanimity at Monday’s meeting for the recommendations. Speaking as a resident, School Committee Member Jamal Saeh attacked the board saying that while it earlier declared any recommendation or requirement would be made based on the available science, “I didn’t see it in today’s conversation.”

After pointing to selected studies from the New England Journal of Medicine on the effectiveness of vaccines on different COVID variants, “I don’t know exactly other than our community members who are pushing for [mandates], why we’re having this conversation right now,” said Saeh, who then proposed a “proper” conversation via a large public forum to hear from a “large swath of the community.” He also suggested creating a strategy on mask wearing for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and when, upon reaching some undetermined rate of infection, would the mandates end.

In response, David pointed out that there is still much to be known about the Delta variant that carries a lot more viral load within people. “There are new things coming [from the CDC] and school is about to start,” she said, noting that determining a percentage of infection or other numbers that show a decrease in cases “is an evolving process.”

“I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” said David, a comment seconded by Allen, who is a physician. “I don’t feel prepared to set a … number [when to lift a mandate]. I would want to consult with others” but would still follow the AAP guidelines “if we care about equity because it’s really an equity issue for all students.”

While there was consensus among the board for masking and other mitigation measures for indoor activities, LeMay wasn’t prepared to make their decision a requirement for the school district to follow. Rather, she felt the Belmont School Committee should be given the opportunity to discuss the board’s “strong recommendation” on all people wearing masks in schools.

While the board effectively “punted” to the school committee further discussion of the issue, the board said it would moved its next scheduled meeting up to early/mid August to review the information coming from the CDC and the state’s Board of Health with an eye towards following the AAP in its recommendation.

“Look, no matter what we decide, people are going to be upset but that’s not our concern. We’re concerned but it’s not going to influence what were going to do,” said David.

School Committee OKs Exploring Private/Public Rink Partnership

Photo: Select Board Chair Tom Caputo and Assistant Town Administrator Jon Marshall.

After the Belmont School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday, June 4 to move forward with a private/public partnership to build a new town skating rink, Select Board Chair Tom Caputo said the vote was the “easy part.”

The hard part, he noted, is coming in two weeks.

With the Select Board likely following the School Committee’s lead supporting the partnership at its Wednesday meeting, Caputo said the next step for the School Committee to providing Town Administrator Patrice Garvin’s office “some guidance” on the size and location of the rink when the town creates a “request for proposal” that developers will bid on.

“Are there some specific things that folks would like to see or hear or investigate in the time that between now and then that would help inform that conversation,” Caputo asked the committee members after voting to explore a public/partner arrangement.

What is going to make this phase of the committee’s work difficult is due to an extremely tight timeline to get all their concerns and suggestions to the town.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” said Caputo, since the work identifying the major issues that need to be resolved to satisfy the committee members that the partnership is doable must be completed in just two weeks when the School Committee meets for the final time until the new school year in September.

Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator noted to the committee, representatives from his office and the Office of Community Development will require at least the summer to write an RFP has the dual challenges of writing a financial worthy project while encapsulating the advice from the School Committee.

“I think that the challenge that we will have, as a group, as we go through this process is putting on the table the hopes and expectations that we have in the RFP and prioritizing them as to non-negotiable to flexible items, and then finding out what we are at the end and then to avoid that area,” said John Phelan, Belmont Superintendent.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the committee members raised several prominent issues they wanted to be investigated, a major one being whether the project requires a regular sized rink with an adjacent half rink to be financially viable.

Another concern the committee wants to place in an RFP is a requirement that the project doesn’t reduce the three playing fields that will abut the new project. Committee member Tara Donner said there should be some effort either in the RFP or during the that supports a rink with ice sheets two levels to reduce the building’s footprint.

Belmont School Committee member Tara Donner

Marshal said it’s likely that the RFP can be written in such a way that bidders will be encouraged to tackle the space of the building and how it impacts the number of fields.

Other issues were the availability of parking, traffic pattern changes with a new structure, and hours of operation needed to support the business plan.

While a number of residents at a public meeting a week previous voiced a myriad of issues with a prink – including pay the rink’s estimated $8 to $10 million price tag – the School Committee was fairly unified in its support to at least thoroughly investigate the private/public proposal over other options.

“[W]e need to at least explore the possibility of this low-cost option,” said Micheal Crowley who said residents have taken on the financial burden of a new school and the likelihood of an override next spring.

While echoing Crowley’s statement, fellow member Andrea Prestwich said her support is conditional with the knowledge that if the proposals do not satisfy the board’s direction and specific worries, “we have the right to say ‘no’.”

Letter to the Editor: Join Me Voting For Kim O’Mahony on Tuesday

Photo: Kim

To the editor:

On Tuesday, April 5, I will be voting for Kim O’Mahony, a 12-year Belmont resident, for School Committee. Here’s why.

  • First, Kim has a business background and is well equipped to deal with the budget, to oversee the upcoming contract negotiations, and to understand the constraints of managing expenses in a Prop. 2 ½ climate.
  • Second, Kim has professional experience in early childhood education. In fact, she runs a child care center.  She clearly understands the diverse needs of Belmont’s children.
  • Lastly, Kim is an energetic, committed, and approachable member of the community. She will deal with the matters at hand in a civil, balanced, and heartfelt way.

When I think of the ideal candidate to serve on the School Committee, I think of Kim. A business background, an expertise in education, and a long-standing member of this community.

Please consider joining me in casting a vote for Kim! Thank you.

Lisa Gibalerio

Chandler Street

Candidate’s Final Pitch: Andrea Prestwich for School Committee

Photo: Andrea Prestwich

Belmont schools are world-class. I’m in awe of our teachers, the achievements of our students and families who support them. I hope to serve on the School Committee because I’m committed to maintaining excellence in our schools. Belmont schools face tough challenges over the next few years, including a space crunch, increasing enrollment and a new high school. The school committee needs to make smart decisions and look for creative solutions to these problems. Most importantly, the school committee should be unanimous in maintaining funding and take a leadership role in advocating for a new high school. 

Another important issue is school start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control both recommend that middle and high schools should start later to allow kids to get the sleep they need. Recently, superintendents in the Middlesex Athletics League, including Belmont, signed an agreement to transition to later start times. I totally support the superintendent’s initiative and, If elected, I will work very hard to make later start times a reality. 

My day time job is in astrophysics. I am a member of the team that manages the Chandra X-ray Observatory. I have learned how large organizations work, how to negotiate, how to work with diverse people with different perspectives. I understand how to work through the ramifications of policy decisions while keeping focused on critical goals. I have overall responsibility for a $10 million dollar budget. I believe that my policy and budgetary experience will be invaluable on the School Committee, which sets policy for Belmont schools and approves the school budget.

I would be honored to serve on the school committee and if elected will work hard for our schools and the health and well-being of our children. I respectfully ask for your vote on April 5. 

Letter to the Editor: Why Belmont Should Vote for Kim O’Mahony

To the editor:

Belmont voters should head to the polls on April 5, 2016 and remember to vote for Kim O’Mahony for School Committee. 

Kim is qualified to serve on the School Committee for several reasons. First, as a mother of three students, she has a deep understanding and commitment to the schools. Second, running her own early childhood education business provides a genuine understanding of budgeting and expenses associated with education. Finally, she has been attending school committee meetings and understands the role of the school committee in overseeing the budget, superintendent and establishing policies for the schools.

I first met Kim when she was one of several candidates for an appointment to the School Committee in the fall of 2014. Kim answered the questions posed by the School Committee and Selectmen well and understood the role of the school committee in town government at that time.  During this election season Kim continues to provide thoughtful answers that truly show her understanding of the functions and role of the school committee. 

While I will gladly serve with any of the three candidates, the one who I believe will thrive as a member is Kim O’Mahony.  I hope you all head to the polls and vote for Kim O’Mahony. 

Susan Burgess-Cox

Radcliffe Road 

School Committee Question of the Week: Should Schools Adopt A Naming Rights Policy

Photo: from left, Murat Bicer, Kimberly O’Mahony, Andrea Prestwich

This week’s Question of the Week for the School Committee:

Many school districts have embracing naming rights on school district-owned property. Naming rights occur when a company or firm purchases the right to place its name and/or logo on a facility or event for a defined period of time. The TD Garden – the sports arena in Boston where the professional teams play – is a nearby example. School districts around the country are moving in this direction – recently Aspen, Colorado – with some agreements reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly to name athletic facilities (or ads on the side of school buses) after a local firm. The money from the namings is mostly targeted towards long-term financial goals. Q: Where do you stand on establishing a naming rights policy for Belmont and would you promote it?

Murat Bicer

The question of selling naming rights to companies to bring in revenue to our district deserves strong consideration. The Financial Task Force report published in early 2015 points to naming rights as a possible source of funds, and lays out a number of critical questions that need to be answered satisfactorily either in by-laws or in any contract with corporate sponsors. I agree that each of these questions is important. I also believe the process by which we develop by-laws and consider sponsors should be transparent and include community participation. The people of Belmont want a healthy school district.  The Committee and district need to have open, cordial, and continual discussions with residents on how to make that happen.  We’re lucky to have generous local businesses who already support our schools through partnerships with the Foundation for Belmont Education, through the performing arts, and on the athletic fields. I commend the FTF for thinking carefully about expanding these partnerships.

Kimberly O’Mahony

Establishing a naming rights policy for Belmont could be a creative way to increase revenue for the District. That being said, specific rules would need to apply to ensure the sponsor’s message agrees with the message of the schools. There are certain categories of companies that would not be suitable such as alcohol or tobacco. Belmont would need to recognize the incredible value it would be providing the sponsor by offering exposure to a new generation of consumers, and realize the proper compensation for that exposure. There would be many other considerations to take into account when creating such a policy, but I would not be against investigating it as an option for Belmont.

Andrea Prestwich

Belmont schools face significant financial challenges in the next few years, including construction of a new High School. Given this reality, I think we should be open to “name rights” deals on big-ticket items. However, before we go down this road the School Committee needs to craft careful policies pertaining to naming rights.  We obviously do not want to name a facility for a tobacco company or gun manufacturers. We also need to protect ourselves from so-called first amendment lawsuits if we reject a sponsor, for example, the Klu Klux Klan won the right to be included in an “Adopt a Highway” program in Missouri. We need to be able to withdraw from a deal if it turns sour. What if we named the new new High School gymnasium for a sports clothing manufacturer who later was discovered to be using child labor? 

One of the most significant downsides to commercial naming is that we lose a sense of community ownership. Think of Joey’s Park or the pool. We could have “sold” the naming rights to these facilities.   Thanks to the vision of a few local leaders, they were rebuilt with the participation of the whole community, including local businesses. The impact of such “barn raising” efforts goes far beyond a new pool and playground. They contribute to a sense of pride in, and ownership of, our town. They encourage us all to be good citizens. My preference is to keep Belmont schools owned by a partnership of citizens and local  businesses rooted in our community.

Letter to the Editor: Variety of Reasons to Support Prestwich for School Committee

Photo: Andrea Prestwich.

To the editor:

We are writing in support of Andrea Prestwich for a three-year term on the Belmont School Committee. Her professional background makes her eminently well qualified for that position; among other responsibilities, she oversees projects and manages a multimillion dollar budget for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and she serves on the committee that advises the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute on policies about the Hubble Space Telescope. In these roles, she has demonstrated an ability to work in a committee context to formulate policy and to think critically about the implications of that policy.

We have known Andrea, husband Steve, and their twins for more than six years through singing in our church choir and many happy hours in various activities at our church. We have thoroughly enjoyed workshops she has led on aspects of astrophysics, where we have experienced first-hand her excellent communication skills in making complex topics accessible.  

Having two children in our schools, she has always taken a keen interest in issues before the school committee; she is passionately committed to Belmont kids. We believe Andrea’s depth of experience and skill in working with others, as well as her excellent communication skills, warm personality and understanding of current educational issues would make her an invaluable member of the Belmont School Committee. We will be enthusiastically voting for Andrea on April 5 and urge you to do the same.

David Warner and Mary Beekman

Kilburn Road  

School Committee Drop Religious Holidays from Calendar, Start Year Post Labor Day

Photo: Speaker at the School Committee meeting. Dr. David Alper is at right.

A year after joining most neighboring communities by adding Yom Kippur and keeping Good Friday as school holidays, the Belmont School Committee did a complete “about face” and voted on Tuesday, March 22 to rid the 2016-17 school calendar of all days off for religious observation.

The board voted 5-0 to strip out existing Christian and Jewish observations which were installed on a one-year “pilot” basis. 

The reversal came after the committee and School District heard from a large number of parents – including many first-generation Asian residents – who declared the policy disruptive to the educational process and did not reflect the growing diversity within Belmont’s schools.

“I would hate for the message to be that Belmont hates religion” but rather a vote is a nod to the growing pluralism in the district, said School Committee member Tom Caputo. 

“This is about being respectful and not anti-holiday,” said member Lisa Fiore. “That’s the headline, that we must respect you whether you are 87 percent or three percent of the population,” she said.

“But we also need to make steps towards making it as easy as practically possible to observe religious holidays,” Caputo said, saying the district should now embrace the opportunity to explain why these days are important and why students observe them. 

Before this year, district policy was Jewish students were not “penalized” for taking the High Holidays as an unexcused absence. 

The board also decided, 3-2, to support taking an official day off for the quadrennial Presidential election day including the one this November for “safety concerns” as three elementary schools – Winn Brook, Butler, and Burbank – are home to one of eight precinct polling locations. 

In a separate decision, the committee bowed to parents by rejecting a proposal to start the school year before Labor Day on the last week in August. Sponsored by Belmont Superintendent John Phelan and backed by district teachers and several national studies, starting pre-Labor Day provides an easier transition into the school year by “easing” into educating then having a three-day Labour Day holiday before moving directly into teaching post-Labor Day. But family vacation and summer plans trumped the idea on an online survey.

Residents spoke to keep the current “pilot” schedule including Dr. David Alper, who led the drive last year to recognize Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the year in Judaism, which a significant number of students observe.

Alper stressed the nature of the observance, a day of fasting and prayer in Temple and at house, which requires students to miss a day early in the school year – the high holiday occurs between early September to mid-October – and despite assurances from principals, teachers will schedule tests and new work on and after that day.

But for the sizable number of first-generation Asian residents – an unusual step of engagement from a group largely in the background in town politics and policy – who sent statements to the Superintendents office and voted to end all religious observations on an online poll, the issue was educational rather than spiritual. 

Speaking before the committee and after the meeting with the Belmontonian, Jie Lu said what brought Chinese, Korean, and South Asian parents to speak out on the issue was its direct impact on the educational process.

While noting the importance of religion in many person lives, Lu said he is supportive of parents taking children out of school and teachers taking a personal day to celebrate with their family.

“But I don’t agree [to close] the entire system because it’s disruptive and a lot of [a] burden for lots of other families,” said the Concord Avenue resident and parent of children in the district. 

Phelan and some school committee members noted that disruptions could continue these days as a significant number of teachers have expressed a wish to take off on Good Friday and to a lesser extent Yom Kippur. While the remaining students will be in school, it won’t be a “typical” day with no new work or exams and substitute teachers employed.

Other parents spoke of the exclusion of other “not-too-big-groups” that celebrate important religious dates such as Ramadan for Muslims or cultural celebrations like Chinese New Year in which celebrants are expected to stay up all night “which would be hard for children to attend then school the next day.”

Judi Hamparian said by adding one religion’s observation, such as Good Friday, it would “be opening a Pandor’s box” if the district would attempt to be as inclusive as it should, noting the Armenian Genocide is an important historical event that many in Belmont observe as a solemn occasion.

“Why not also a day [for recognizing the geneocide]?” she said. 

After the vote outside the meeting, Lu and Alper discussed their positions.

“We are not trying to argue should we have holiday or [not]. The important thing is how do we observe the religious and how do we let the children know there are different religions, and everyone should respect them,” said Lu. 

“The major concern is that we will have soon too many religious celebrations and that we disrupt the education,” he said. 

While there will be a break in the teaching with children and students out, Alper believes religious observations “is an opportunity for educating these kids that will last a lifetime.”  

“I don’t mind seeing [Yom Kippur] not observed as long as “the school committee and superintendent follow through by acknowledging these holidays and especially in the elementary schools that these children are taught that David and Rachel are not here today because they need to be in temple and fast and Mr. Lu’s children will not be in school because they are celebrating New Year,” said Alper, who said he will be vigilant that the committee follows through on its promise. 

“I agree that if the kids learn then they can tell their parents. That’s how I know about Yom Kippur, my kids told me because their teacher told them,” said Lu. 

“We need to make this less a calendar change and make it a teachable moment,” said Alper. 

School Committee QW: Integrating English As Second Language Students Into Schools

Photo: The candidates for School Committee: (from left) O’Mahony, Prestwich and Bicer.

Here is the Question of the Week (QW) for the School Committee candidates:

The number of students coming into the Belmont school system from outside the US or who speak a language other than English is growing as is the demand for educators to teach ELL students. With the understanding that the committee is a policy-making body, do you have any plans/programs that you believe will help integrate students more efficiently into our schools. 

Kimberly O’Mahony

I am in awe when I think about how diverse our community is; it’s wonderful! This does make it hard, though, for educators to keep all of the children learning at the same pace due to the challenges facing those whose first language is not English. It would be most productive to consider the pressures regarding this issue, prioritize by impact and ability to alleviate, and identify ways to improve the high-risk areas while keeping the best interest of the children and faculty in mind as well as the budget constraints.  

I am not running for School Committee with an agenda, nor am I armed with an arsenal of answers.  Rather, I am running with a vision of working collaboratively with the School Committee and other committees/town departments to identify the best solutions to the problems we are facing with a thoughtful and fiscally-aware approach. Along with that, always keeping in mind that the main driver is to sustain, support, and enhance the high quality of our education system that the faculty and support staff produces in Belmont each and every day.

Andrea Prestwich

The number of students who do not speak English as their native language (English Language Learners or ELL) has increased from 95 to 261 in Belmont over the last six years. These children face unique challenges. The percentage of ELL or kids who were once ELL who graduate from high school is dramatically lower than for native English speakers.  Early intervention to mitigate the disadvantages they face is, therefore, crucial.

My understanding is that Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) is regarded by education professionals as the most effective way to teach ELL. The term “sheltered” dates back to the 1980s when ELL was taught in separate classrooms. Today, SEI refers to teaching techniques that are used to make content accessible to ELLs in a mainstream classroom.  The dual goal is to teach ELL grade-level content while increasing their English proficiency. Strategies include allowing students extra time to formulate answers, simplifying teaching language and using visuals to reinforce the main points of the lesson.  

Implementing SEI in Belmont classrooms requires clustering  ELL into groups or teams.  Another key requirement is to have Belmont teachers become proficient in SEI techniques. It will be necessary for increasing numbers of Belmont teachers to become SEI certified to support these children. As part of the RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners) initiative, Massachusetts requires that all teachers who have one or more ELL in their classroom attend an SEI Endorsement Course within one year of being assigned the student.

Murat Bicer

Integrating ELL students into our community and schools is important because integration and language mastery often go hand in hand.  If we are able to move students to proficiency more quickly there is less cost to the district and less chance for the student to fall behind academically.

Integration for school-aged children must begin with and include their families. ELL families face challenges everywhere from figuring out how to register for school, to understanding school procedures, to knowing how to participate in Second Soccer. Belmont is fortunate to have an active and engaged parent population, and we can use this resource through the organization of the PTO to establish integration opportunities. For instance, we could work to match new ELL families with English-proficient families of the same first language, giving the newcomers a sympathetic place to ask questions and learn about the workings of the town. Let’s also look to the Recreation Department to target outreach to ELL families. Sports, free play, and other out-of-school activities are fertile times to learn English.

Finally, let’s not overlook the enormous leaps forward in translation technologies. Many are available at little to no cost and could be utilized both in the classroom and with families. Translation services represent a significant portion of the district’s ELL budget. New technologies may allow us gain some savings while at the same time increasing the amount of translated material we are able to produce.