Marathon Town Meeting ends with dramatic vote on free cash, library aides

It was Spring Town Meeting once again on Monday evening and, as with our previous two sessions, the meeting ran long — just about till midnight — ending with a dramatic standing vote on an amendment to allocate additional funds from Belmont’s free cash to the School Department.

The amendment, proposed by Anne Mahon, was a political longshot when it was submitted last week. By the time it was considered, at around 10:00pm Monday evening, both the Board of Selectmen and Warrant Committee had voted unanimously not to recommend it to Town Meeting, and the School Committee split on the issue 3-2 with one member absent. (I voted in favor of the motion both on School Committee and in Town Meeting, as did fellow SC member Laurie Graham). The amendment, which proposed transferring around $175,000 from the town’s cash reserves to the BPS, was couched in terms of restoring proposed cuts to library aide positions at the elementary schools, and restoring positions that were slated for elimination at the High School. And that clearly touched a nerve within a Town Meeting, with members queing up three and four deep to speak on the issue and making clear that they did not support the proposed elimination of the library aide positions, or the cuts at the High School. Comments ran three or four to one in favor of the amendment in a debate that lasted for 90 minutes. The final vote wasn’t close — 116 to 84 in favor (someone check those numbers for me, please). There were impassioned speeches on both sides with town leaders arguing, in essence, that the Town faces steep declines in revenues in FY10 and especially FY 11 and won’t be able to count on federal stimulus money, which is being used to patch over shortfalls in state aid and a huge structural budget deficit this year. Supporters, including Mrs. Mahon argued that every cut to School Dept. programming just creates a new, low benchmark for “level funding,” and that programs– once cut — don’t return. Let me just say that I found that argument extremely, extremely persuasive.

Mahon was backed by a string of other notables — Fred Paulson, Monte Allen, Jack Weis, Kim Becker, former SC Chair John Bowe, many making a similar argument and speaking voluably for the restoration of likely cuts to Elementary Library Aide positions and Belmont High School positions. While the School Committee has made clear that it has full discretion to decide how the additional funds will be allocated, Town Meeting members last night made no secret of the fact that they expect it will used as intended: to restore Library Aide positions and positions at BHS.

There was also a clear sense, from those speaking in support, that town leaders — though earnest in their efforts to arrive at a sensible budget for the next fiscal year, had badly misjudged public sentiment in proposing elimination of the Library Aide positions, which will sharply curtail use of the libraries at the elementary schools and could result in their outright closure. (Principals have floated alternative ideas — book carts brought to classrooms, etc. — but most say that removing aides will greatly reduce use of the libraries.) In one of the more entertaining speeches of the evening, which might be remembered as the “Cat Leash” speech, TM member David Alper related a story about the Belmont Board of Health proposing the mandatory use of cat leashes to stem an outbreak of rabies in the early 1990s. Town Meeting “in its infinite wisdom” soundly rejected the idea, Alper recalled. “The powers that be made a decision that didn’t sit well with the town. It was a minor error of choice, and I think that’s what’s happened here,” he said. Great stuff.

Speaking against the measure, SC Chair Ann Rittenberg noted that significant one time funds had already been poured into this year’s budget to preserve programming, and that Belmont was already allowing stimulus money to go to the Schools with no offset in the allocation of town revenues, as other towns were requiring. Acting Superintendent Pat Aubin worried that the town was clinging onto threads of what used to be robust library programs, with full time librarians and library aides helping to support classroom programs and help students learn how to use library resources and find the information they need. But speaker after speaker urged the body to accept the measure, saying — in essence – -they’d rather have threads than go naked.

A handful of TM members spoke against the measure. Jeanne Widmer (wife of Moderator Mike Widmer) and Sherry Jones (wife of Selectman Ralph Jones) expressed sympathy for those seeking to avoid cuts to the schools, but argued that the measure was short sighted. Widmer suggested that its passage would jeapordize an upcoming debt exclusion vote on Wellington Elementary. That was not a view held widely, though a fuller discussion will almost certainly come Wednesday when Town Meeting votes to appropriate close to $40m for the design and construction of a new Wellington Elementary, subject to approval by voters in a town wide election. More than a few speakers urged town leaders to begin preparing voters for the necessity of a Prop 2 1/2 override, saying that the town’s main problem was a large structural budget deficit that had been allowed to grow, unchecked, in the last decade. “This deficit is structural. It won’t be fixed with free cash or bake sales by the PTA,” said TM member Monte Allen. “I call on the town’s leadership to exercise leadership on this issue and bring the town along with them.”