Before he was known primarily as a creep and a criminal, Bill Cosby was a pretty funny comedian. When I was growing up, we had a bunch of LPs of his stand up routines and I listened to them all the time on the stereo system in our den. The Cos had one skit that I remember in particular – one of his more famous routines. It imagined a conversation between Noah and God about building The Ark. In the skit, God speaks to Noah, tells him of his plan to destroy humanity and orders him to build The Ark. Noah is skeptical (“am I on Candid Camera?”) and complains bitterly about the work, the mess, ridicule from his neighbors, etc. etc. God’s response is simple: “Noah, how long can you tread water?”
That skit came to mind frequently during the past couple years as I’ve watched Belmont’s government and its citizenry wrestle with a Noah-esque challenge: what to do about a nearly 50 year old high school that is reaching the end of its useful life and how to best address a crushing overpopulation problem at our K-8 schools that is disrupting our long tradition of neighborhood schools and making it harder and harder to deliver quality instruction to all our students.
The inspired and elegant solution to both those problems lies in the proposed 7-12 school that Belmont will vote to fund on Question #4 this Tuesday (if you haven’t already voted). The new facility will address the acute problems facing the Belmont High. Like Noah’s Ark: it will be a big project. But, as was the case with Noah: the alternatives to that big project are no less costly and, frankly, promise worse outcomes. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to vote YES on Question #4 to fund the construction of the 7-12 school.
Belmont: how long can we tread water?
Belmont: how long can we tread water? The answer to that is: not very long at all. To understand the dire situation our district is in, look no further than the list of “priorities” that Belmont listed in its statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) back in 2015. Among the priorities for the district that Belmont presented to the state were:
- elimination of severe overcrowding
- preventing a “loss of (state) accreditation”
- replacement of core systems like roofs, windows, boilers, heating and ventilation systems
- replacement of obsolete buildings needed to provide programs “consistent with state and …local requirements.”
Our lab science facilities at BHS are particularly dire and the state has let us know that they do not meet its minimum requirements. Among other things, our high school science labs lack running water, have non-functioning safety equipment, have inadequate science lab space and classroom space given the student population. (Check out this BPS presentation to Belmont School Committee from September for more on that.)
Overcrowding has also resulted in “makeshift” education, with rooms used for a purpose other than that for which they were intended. At BHS, an auto shop garage is now used as a chorus practice room. A Health and Wellness class meets in an old lecture hall while Physics classes are not held in a lab space. While there are many districts in the state facing accreditation worries and making do, this is not the position that a town like Belmont – with the resources that Belmont has – should find itself in.
District’s challenges extend beyond Belmont High
Further down at the Chenery and the elementary schools, rapid demographic shifts in town have added some 600 more students to the district in the last decade: the equivalent of a good sized elementary school, with no real increase in classroom space. That has led to a similar “makeshift” solutions as every available space within existing buildings has been put to use, not to mention the addition of expensive and temporary solutions like the modular classes that were added at Burbank over the summer.
The costs for the district of dealing with those overcrowding problems and “right sizing” our K-8 schools to address overcrowding separately (one school at a time) rather than all at once are far higher for the district – by tens of millions of dollars – than what the district will incur with a new 7-12 building to relieve K-8 overcrowding. So the new 7-12 school will solve our inadequate facilities and our overcrowding problems in one fell swoop.
Our Kids Deserve It
But the best argument in favor of the new school is simply that it is what is best for our children’s education and that our kids deserve it. Simply put: the economy our children will enter is vastly different from the economy of the early 1970s. The kinds of education and instruction that they will need to prepare them, likewise, are very different. Our district’s Educational Vision emphasizes the development of communication, leadership, problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration skills. Educators in our district today are developing student-centered, interdisciplinary units – lessons that our circa 1972 facility, with its limited space and rigorous physical separation based on subject (English, Lab Sciences, Mathematics, etc.) simply doesn’t support. The new 7-12 building will support that type of education and reinforce our Educational Vision.
Whatever it is, they’ve thought of that…
As the vote approaches, I’ve heard plenty of “whataboutism” and witnessed bouts of counter argument “spaghetti throwing” You know what I’m talking about the: ‘why don’t we do x instead?’ question or the ‘have they ever considered plan y?’ rejoinder.
The answer to all those questions -whatever the question is- would be “YES.” The request for funding that is Question 4 is the end result of a years-long process of vetting the different options available to the town and their likely costs as well as scores of public meetings and community hearings to take input and weigh different options. And “yes,” that includes the option of “doing nothing.”
Long and short: if some brilliant idea about what to do with Belmont High has occurred to you, it has occurred to the architects, educators and professionals at BPS and the Building Committee. And “Yes” it has been considered against the current plan and found wanting.
Yes for Belmont has a wealth of information on all these various options and their pros and cons. There’s a natural tendency to want to believe that a cheaper, less disruptive and easier “fix” is out there somewhere, but nobody thought of it. The town and BPS have thought of and considered everything. The plan they’ve put forward is simply the best solution, given the myriad challenges our district is wrestling with. Check out this video, which lays out the case.
Don’t bet against Belmont
And finally, for those who say that our current student population boom will be a bust – that the next ten years will witness some collapse in student enrollment, I’d say this: “don’t bet against Belmont.” While it may be (or may not) that birth rates and school populations will decline in the U.S. or even in Massachusetts, the smart money says that Belmont will continue to be a town that attracts families for the foreseeable future. We’re a lovely town: small, walkable, friendly with proximity to Boston and Cambridge: the nexus of revolutions in technology, medicine, robotics, education and more. The future of Greater Boston is bright and Belmont’s along with it. Betting against Belmont or hoping against all odds that the town ceases to be a magnet for families is a fool’s errand. The proposed 7-12 school, when it is complete, will be a crown jewel in Belmont’s school system and a testament to this town’s embrace of public education, learning and our students.
Vote YES on Question #4. Vote YES for Belmont!
Paul Roberts, Town Meeting Member,