Massive turnout puts override on the agenda

March 1 School Budget Meeting

An impressive turnout by parents of Belmont Public School students and other concerned citizens put the issue of an operational override at the top of the town’s agenda Saturday, and may have set the stage for a vote on an override in May or June.

Hundreds of people crammed into the Community Room at the Chenery, overflowing into the hallway and nearby rooms to attend a joint meeting of the School Committee, Warrant Committee and Board of Selectmen. On the agenda was funding for the town’s schools, following a series of discussions between the Town, School Committee and Warrant Committee over possible cuts to cover an estimated $3m structural deficit in the town’s FY09 budget.

Similar to a heated meeting last year, parents turned out in force to show their support for the schools. But whereas last year’s meeting turned mostly on a proposal for full day kindergarten (it ended up getting dropped), this year a wide range of programs face deep cuts or elimination: elementary music education, extracurricular activities, teacher positions in the 5th grade, 2nd grade (Butler School) and 3rd grade (Wellington), library aides, and more.

The meeting followed a familiar pattern — the first 50 minutes or so were spent hearing from and discussing the town’s funding for the Minuteman Technical School, a regional vocational technical school that Belmont is legally obligated to support at tremendous cost.

Discussion turned next to funding for the Belmont Public Schools, at which point things got interesting. Selectman Firenze began the discussion with a high level overview of the budget problems facing the town (the short version: our expenses outweigh our revenue). While Belmont cable will carry the nitty gritty of the meeting, I think it’s safe to say that the questioning of Superintendent Holland was pointed but respectful. The Warrant Committee and Selectmen were interested in determining whether the proposed cuts — particularly to the teaching staff– were really necessary, or whether there were other, less controversial cuts that could be made, or fees introduced to offset those cuts. This is along the lines of WC member Liz Allison’s question the other night about whether we couldn’t cut ceramics and pottery (and music, we can suppose) rather than the three “R’s.”

Butler Elementary principal Bruce McDonald responded to questions about the practical impact of removing, say, part time Library Aides by saying, simply, that the Library doors would be locked in Belmont’s elementary schools because there would be nobody to circulate the books to students. (Budget cuts did away with full time librarians a long time ago.) A frightening concept. Questions about the impact of cutting elementary music education also yielded some half hearted responses about possibly doing it afterschool and making parents pay for the full cost — but as some of the products of that very program — children, instruments in hand — swarmed into the Chenery for Saturday music program, nobody with the courage to look out the window was feeling very good about the prospect of ending elementary music education.

There were impassioned pleas on behalf of the schools and in opposition to the cuts from both School Committee members like Scott Stratford and by a host of community members, who spoke up for the merits of the music program, the extracurricular sports programs, the libraries and of course small class size.

In the end, the pleas from parents appear to have been heard. Word out from the Selectmen’s deliberations following the hearing from two people who were there are that the Selectmen will be putting the ball back in the School Department’s court: scraping some more money together to try to stave off the worst of the proposed cuts without necessitating an operational override — perhaps getting close to the 5.8% increase that Superintendent Holland defined as a “level service” budget, but short of the 7.5% he asked for? It’s not clear, because we don’t know what additional funds might be headed the School Department’s way. Should that work. (No news here — this is basically the scenario outlined in B2’s post following the last Warrant Committee meeting.) What’s new is the scenarios outlined by the Selectmen should the School Committee not be able to work with the new numbers. In that case, from what B2’s sources say, the Selectmen will push for an operational override in May or June that will close the structural budget deficit in the town. This marks a reversal of prior plans for a roads override vote in April and the parents who turned out on Saturday morning should congratulate themselves for their great effort!

As for the other major funding issue facing the town’s schools: funding for the Wellington School will be on the budget, in all likelyhood in November, following state approval of the project.

The Selectmen make no secret about their belief that override votes will fail — putting us right back to where we are now. It will be up to everyone who supports the school system to make sure they’re wrong.

This is great news. That said, there was something disingenuous about many of the questions lobbed at Superintendent Holland and the School Committee. Underlying many of them was the suggestion that the Schools were somehow hiding funding, and floating teacher positions to elicit an emotional reaction from the town, not because they were really necessary.

I wonder, is Selectman Firenze really unaware of what a huge proportion of the School Dept. budget salaries and non discretionary funding (such as special ed) make up? If he gets it, then he shouldn’t have to ask our School Superintendent why eliminating teacher positions is necessary to recover $800,000 from the existing budget? If he doesn’t get that, then he hasn’t been paying even the slightest attention to the budget estimates that have been coming out of Mr. Holland’s office — all of which make clear how little wiggle room there is in the school budget when you take away teacher salaries, special ed, utilities and the like.

In a similar vein: was Warrant Committee member (and soon to be Selectman) Raplph Jones serious when he suggested that some schools — like the Butler –used their libraries MORE than other elementary schools, and thus were more sensitive to library aide cuts? I mean, I suppose Mr. Jones’s heart is in the right place, but talk about not getting it — this was the educational equivalent of George Bush’s African tribal dance. Ah well…