Questions for School Committee Candidates: Jamal Saeh

Editor’s Note: Next week the town will go to vote on a number of issues including two seats on Belmont’s School Committee. Earlier this month, Blogging Belmont sent questionnaires to the five candidates for those two positions with a number of questions that we felt were important for voters to understand candidates’ positions on before they vote. This week, we’ll be publishing the responses we received, highlighting one candidate each day and posting their responses as received.

Our third response is from School Committee Candidate Jamal Saeh. Jamal is a resident of Belmont and the father of a freshman and junior at Belmont High School. He works as an executive director at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in Waltham. His campaign website is here.


Click on the links below to jump to the question.

Many parents are unhappy with the Belmont schools this year because of Covid-19. What would you say to them? 

I don’t know anyone who is happy because of Covid-19. But I know many who are unhappy because of how leaders have responded to challenges brought about by the pandemic.

Jamal Saeh Belmont
Jamal is a candidate for School Committee.

I would start by understanding why they are unhappy and check my assumptions because what I am unhappy about will never be representative of a diverse community with diverse needs and challenges. I would then work hard to make clear that I see their concerns as valid and clarify where my priorities are and what problems I want to tackle first.

From talking to multiple parents, remote, in-person, empty nesters, teachers, and students, the root cause of many of the issues is poor planning and poor decision making. Yes, the pandemic made the work of the SC incredibly difficult, but poor leadership and unwillingness to listen and respect community feedback or expertise, increased the frustration. I would start by increasing transparency behind the assumptions I am making to empower the community to help me make a better decision, and then act decisively.

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What can be done to improve things in BPS in the remainder of this year? How about next year?

Get HS kids full time before Spring break. Adolescents have suffered enough isolation, and we have science to support the decision and classroom capacity to bring kids back who want to.

Next year, students are coming back after a year and half of social isolation, education has been impacted, and teachers and students will be playing catch up. The administration has done an assessment of where each student is but we have not seen the output of it. As a governing body, I want better clarity on where we are, and understand what the plans are to address them.

I would want to map out how we can best utilize all state and federal money to support this work (accelerate the hiring of counselors/psychologists, and support staff as feasible).

In the next year or two, we need to reconfigure our district, which opens up numerous opportunities to improve the experience of students and teachers, but also improve the academics. We need to get this right, and understand the options and challenges and agree on a plan with measurable outcomes that SC and SA can monitor. We will also need to start implementing the output of the equity audit and demonstrate how it enhances the experience and outcomes for all students.

Long term, we need to make sure we have a 10-year plan that addresses the strategic drivers of value and risk.

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Some say – rightly or wrongly – that the School Committee doesn’t know how to work with the Belmont Education Association (BEA) to improve schooling during the pandemic. How would you work with the BEA?

As an outsider, I don’t know how well the SC worked with the BEA but I can only judge the outcome.  Negotiations were protracted, incremental changes took months, and that suggests to me a failure of leadership, on both sides, to reach a compromise that is equitable to teachers and the community.

The relationship needs to be built on trust, understanding of each others’ bottom line, and exploring creative solution-oriented approaches to value creation. I will work to enhance these fundamentals.  I would also want to make sure that the rules of engagement provide space to negotiate efficiently, and would not delegate the task to the administration.  Given that the schools are the highest beneficiaries of the town budget, I would invite omeone from town government to sit on the negotiation in a consultative capacity in order to make sure we realise our aspiration as “One Belmont One Budget”.

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Many children are experiencing setbacks in their education this year and the learning deficits could be long lasting. What should the School Committee do?

SC needs to first know where we are.  When the administration tells the SC that “we know where every child is”, the next question should be “show me” and what is your plan to fix it, and by when.

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On a per pupil basis, Belmont ranks near the bottom in the state for spending on our schools and for numbers of teachers. Do you consider that a problem that needs to be addressed? If not, why? If so, how do you plan to fix it?

I will always advocate for funding for schools. There is no question that more funding can increase services and improve the educational experience for teachers and students. We cannot expect teachers to bear the brunt of increased class size or parents to supplement their children’s education to meet the district aspiration of a high quality education. The effect of large classes is that less attention is given to each student and parents that are able to supplement their children’s education will do so which exacerbates inequity.

However, per pupil spending has not solved the issues of educational gap in Cambridge more than it will in Belmont despite the fact that Cambridge PPE is double that of Belmont. Class size is a blunt instrument, as is PPE. The hard work in knowing which classes, at what level, for which sub-groups do we need to deploy what resources, and what would be the outcomes that we will be measuring, and how would we know when we got to “good enough”?

We can all come up with a number of programs that we would like to beef-up, experiences to increase or pain-points to decrease, but the district has talked about it in generalities to the community and that has been counterproductive in getting the support needed from the community who is skeptical about the decision making process of the SC. I would spend more time making these goals precise, and plans visible.

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How much control does the School Committee have over the budget and what would you do to improve school funding?

The biggest driver of school budget is staff salary, health plans and pension, and these are all negotiated by the SC and codified in the staff contracts.  The size of the school and demographics of the schools determine the mandated services and number of staff required to provide the education and quality that Belmont Public Schools is accustomed to.  The SC has no control over these and will need to work with the district to prioritize the allocation of resources.

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As one of six School Committee members, what is your plan for exercising leadership or making a difference on the School Committee?

My observation of SC meetings is that there is a fear of dissent (from SC members and community).  Some have characterised the SC as an echo chamber.  I would amplify the voices of SC members with a dissenting voices, and model the behavior that is desired for a SC.  I would also seek to make visible to the community voice. In advance of any consequential vote, where possible I will make my position and assumptions visible to invite community feedback and advocate for solutions so that I and the SC can make informed, creative, and courageous decisions.

As a governing body, there has to be collaboration with the SA and a healthy tension.  The SC is currently acting as a ceremonial body that seeks to rubber stamp SA decisions rather than act as a governing body that sets policy and requests improvement to plans that do not meet the vision or aspiration of the SC and community.  An example of that is the hybrid models that were presented to the SC.  The plans were woefully lacking, teachers and community members thought they missed the mark, but the school committee endorsed the recommendation rather than ask the SA to go back and provide an improved plan.   As a SC I would have made a motion to direct the administration to come back with improved plans with a sense of urgency. 

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What should we do to improve how our schools respond to children with special needs?

Hiring the SpEd chairs will go a long way.  Maximising the use of the Student Opportunity Act will also help.  We expect additional funding to reach >$6m by 2026 and we need to have a strategic plan in place to ramp up support and improve services.

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In your opinion, do Belmont schools have a problem when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equity? What should our schools be doing differently in hiring, curriculum, school climate, and working to improve outcomes for children of color?

Yes. The biggest predictor of academic achievement is socioeconomics, and skin color. This is a recognised challenge in Belmont Public Schools.  In 2017, the achievement gap was assessed in Belmont.   Analysis by BPS of the student experience suggested clear disparity between the subgroups in both achievement and SEL. This is consistent with national research done by the Stanford group (NYT article, Ed Opportunity, Presentation). Inequity in Public Schools, including Belmont, persists regardless of per pupil expenditures or class size suggesting an innovation and/or structural change is needed to close the achievement gap.  

Whether in the boardroom or in the classroom, diversity is important for effective decision making.  Where diversity/inclusion is lacking equity is also lacking.  As an immigrant, ELL, and PoC, I believe that equity is key to increasing the quality of BPS education for all students. Our vision is derived from our community values, and when excellence AND equity are at the heart of education, we all win.  

I support the work of the School Committee equity task force and BPS’ vision to meet the educational needs of ALL students.   I also support the creation of the Equity Director to help coordinate the work across the district and in collaboration with other districts in the commonwealth.  This is a monumental task, but a worthy vision and a worthy task to get right.

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Many parents are upset at the ending of the accelerated math options in 6th and 7th grades at the Chenery.* Should our schools have different math offerings for children of varying ability levels? Or does that cause some children to get left behind?

In short yes, I support it and I blogged about this on my campaign website (Follow Link).

(*) Editor’s note: School Committee Chair Andrea Prestwich informs me that Belmont will be maintaining an accelerated math program based on Somerville’s MX2 Geometry program, which will be implemented in time for the start of the new school year. Superintendent Phelan will be presenting the administration’s plans at a forthcoming School Committee Curriculum Subcommittee meeting.

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Do you plan to vote in support of the Proposition 2 1/2 Override? Please explain your decision to vote YES or NO on the override. 

Yes, I support it and I blogged about this on my campaign website (Follow Link).

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