School Committee opens a loophole for Freshmen sports

OK – let me start by saying that I didn’t stay for the whole School Committee meeting on Monday evening in which the contentious issue of freshmen sports was discussed.  My wife was working late and our babysitter could only stay until 8:00 so I was only there in person for the first hour or so. I did watch the rest, live, on Belmont cable with my three daughters, who sat there glued to the televised meeting with about the same level of interest and engagement as they show for Wizards of Waverly Place or Sunny with a Chance, thereby proving my “its not the content, stupid” theory about television. I should just lock out everything but channel 28 and enjoy the most locally engaged elementary schoolers in town.

What can I say?  I showed up to this meeting an ardent supporter of the SC stance on funding for freshmen athletics, left early on tasting a bit of the frustration with a Committee that seemed officious and tone deaf about the message from voters, and wound up the (late night) meeting at home feeling about as divided as the Committee (and our Town) about what the right course is.

Parents packed the School Committee meeting to speak in favor of Freshmen athletics

If you weren’t among the 100 or so folks who were in the room or didn’t catch it on cable,  this was one of those occasions where everyone was in agreement on what they wanted to see, but bitterly divided about how to get there.  Everyone at the School Committee table and in the administration and in the audience wants to see freshmen sports, middle school track and a vibrant athletics program for Belmont public school students. The difference is really about whether you focus on the forest, or the trees.

The administration and the School Committee see the forest: a school system facing $2 million in cuts from the needs-based budget, many of which are critical and affect every student, district wide.

The folks in the audience are seeing the trees: the $40,000 or $60,000 that’s needed to fund some subset of eight freshmen sports that students have enjoyed for a long time now and that they desperately want to continue.

What I heard was two things: our Superintendent and school leadership council saying: we have bigger fish to fry. Freshmen sports are important, but they’re not a priority. Textbooks are a priority. Elective courses are a priority. Professional development is a priority, building maintenance is a priority, but money for those things is gone — lost with the override. And those changes have already happened: the teachers were fired, the librarian was fired, the library aids and curriculum directors were fired. We’re sorry you’re not happy about the sports piece, but its done.

“There’s something that’s happen to every student’s experience by not having curriculum directors in every critical area,” Superintendent Entwistle said, focusing on just one aspect of the cuts that were made after the failed override vote. “We don’t have a curriculum director in science, in social studies, in foreign language. It won’t be as obvious as not seeing the Freshmen field hockey team on the field, but there’s something that’s happening to every single kid’s opportunity by not having those curriculum directors in place. But we don’t. They were part of the override budget and those things were decommissioned, as was freshmen sports. So were elementary librarians. They’re gone.”

What else is gone? Library and academic support at Belmont High, MCAS support – both gone. Guidance: cut from critically understaffed to what is basically token staffing. The list keeps going…

“If you gave me $45,000 would it go for Freshmen sports? No,” Entwistle said.

What parents were saying is: our bodies in this room and the folks who have pledged their money to this show you that this program matters a lot to us. This isn’t the way we’d like to fund it, but its better than not offering the sports at all.

There were also some territorial and policy issues. Supporters point out that the school department accepts private donations for lots of things, whether that is from the Foundation for Belmont Education, the PTAs or POMs (Parents of Music Students). What’s the big deal with accepting more private funds for Freshmen sports? More than one School Committee member voiced concern about having the year long deliberative process that produced the school department budget upset by a small group of community members who – in essence – wanted to force their hand by directing earmarked funds to restore a beloved program. There was concern about the burden on school administrators like Athletics Director Jim Davis who must now coordinate with a private fundraising effort and managing the flow of donated funds and track those dollars once they’re in the system. There were concerns about the ability of organizers to raise the private funds both in the short term and going forward, once the light and heat over this cut dies down. There were questions about the equity of relying even more on fees when many families in town can’t afford to pay the (sky high) fees that are already in place.

Community members seemed both perplexed by the technicalities of the School Department’s budget, which totals $39 million and involves sundry revolving accounts and earmarks. Perplexed, also, by the reluctance of the Committee to accept private donations, and downright angry about the fact that the burden would be felt by rank and file students who want to play sports, but don’t have the skills to make the Varsity or Junior Varsity teams. Incoming freshmen spoke in favor of freshmen sports – spoke about the difficulty of making JV or Varsity teams. Older students talked about the importance of freshmen athletics to getting them interested in playing at a higher level.

It went back and forth like that for…well…hours, with a number of tersely worded motions put forward (all by SC member Dan Scharfman) and failing to pass an evenly divided Committee who, while supporting the idea of private support for school athletics, were nervous about the targeted and slap dash nature of the specific proposal at hand and in favor of a broader proposal that opened the door to private fundraising, in general for athletics. Town Meeting member and local institution Joe White spoke passionately about the need to give average kids a chance to play sports – going so far as to promise a blank check to fund the Freshmen athletics program for the fall.

In the end, the Committee voted unanimously for a vaguely worded motion that opened the door to allow private fundraising for sports, but fell short of earmarking the funds for Freshmen sports. Athletic Director Jim Davis will ultimately be the Decider, as G.W. Bush famously said. This all with provisos about the need to have cash in hand by August 1st to give Mr. Davis and at set dates thereafter (November 1 for Winter session and February 1 for Spring session). The burden now will shift to Freshmen sports’ backers to make good on their promises. No doubt the money will be in hand for the fall, but the burden of drumming up tens of thousands of dollars in private funding three times a year will, I expect, be daunting – but we’ll see. There’s already a tremendous amount of direct, private funding of Belmont’s education system, whether it is through the PTA or POMS or FBE. The Freshmen sports people will have to move about a crowded landscape with those groups – or find a way to piggy back on them. I wish them luck.

As for myself, I stand with Mrs. Amanda Greene, a town member and mother of an incoming freshmen and current BHS Junior who said, in essence, that “this is no way to run a School District.” Belmont is falling into a dangerous pattern of behavior in which disengaged voters get irritated by the outcome of issues they haven’t paid attention to, then use their clout to pressure officials to make it right – somehow, anyhow. Athletics are important, but so are music, art and theater. If they’re important, then they’re worth the public paying for and making available to everybody.