A Change Election (Change To What: TBD)

OK, so it has been 10 days since Belmont went to the polls and I’m finally getting around to sorting out WTF happened the results. My top line takeaway? Clearly this was a “change” election in which there was relatively high voter participation (at least for a low-turnout April election) and a deep desire to upend the status quo.

We saw that in a competitive, 5-way School Committee race that sent two incumbent School Committee members and a member of the Town’s Board of Health packing. (Often these races are uncontested. Historically, incumbents generally enjoy an easy path to re-election, even when challenged.) We also saw that in the results on Question 1, the Proposition 2 1/2 override, when voters registered a resounding “NO” on a question seeking to increase funding for the Town and Schools. Despite an energetic “YES” campaign (of which I was a part), Question 1 went down by more than 1,000 votes, 56% to 44% – an emphatic defeat at the hands of voters.

Congratulations to Jamal Saeh and Meg Moriarty, our new School Committee members. Congratulations also to our once and future Select Board member, Mark Paolillo and to our new Board of Health Member, Adrienne Allen. Congratulations as well to everyone who was elected or re-elected to Town Meeting, Library Board of Trustees and so on.

Bitter Fruit

I think the 10-second “elevator pitch” on what happened April 6th is that voters, angered by the Town- and Schools’ response to COVID 19 – responded by voting to push both into a financial crisis. The coming weeks and months will show both the schools and town wrestling with the consequences of that decision.

No doubt, the “NO” campaign benefitted from a tragic year in Belmont that saw scores of residents die of COVID and our schools, library and other Town services shuttered by the pandemic. From the perspective of someone who worked on the YES campaign, I got a sense of what it must have been like to work on the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. Like Hillary’s campaign, I think the YES campaign was well run, well organized and well funded. I think we had all the facts on our side and (maybe unlike Clinton) did a good job getting them out there, trying to hear what skeptical voters were saying and feeling, and responding to- and validating those concerns, all the while urging voters to do what was right by the town.

In the end, though, I feel like we were up against a motivated “NO” effort that was less about facts or any single issue than a wave of anti-establishment anger that washed over town. Sure, the organizers and those funding the “NO Override Now” campaign were many of the usual suspects in Belmont – the small government, low tax crowd that opposes every override (or debt exclusion, for that matter) no matter what the circumstances. They offered up more or less the same arguments as they have in every other override campaign, including 2015, when their side lost decisively.

But this year, the work of this more or less permanent “NO” constituency was juiced by residents who were furious at the town for any number of reasons. Among them: recent property tax increases to pay for the new Belmont 7-12 school, crummy roads (a perennial complaint), an unpopular hire for the new fire chief, salaries for the Town and School’s executive leader that were felt to be exorbitant, and on and on.

There was deep disappointment, especially, in the schools. And by “the schools” I mean everyone: the administration of the Belmont Public Schools, the Belmont Teachers’ Union and the School Committee. The anger was over what was perceived as a bungled response to the pandemic. Like the proverbial “deer in the headlights,” our district dragged its feet at each stage of re-opening as it waited for guidance from the State that was never going to come, or slogged through interminable negotiations with the teachers union on the specifics of a re-opening plan.

Throughout, parents were mostly sidelined – given some perfunctory seconds on swollen Zoom calls to register their feelings or suggest ideas. They were listened to politely, but their concerns and suggestions were for the most part ignored. Shut out of the official conversation, residents formed their own groups on platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor. The Facebook Group “Time to Put The Kids First in Belmont,” garnered more than 500 members – mostly parents expressing their frustration and outrage at the performance of the schools’ leadership. In time, these groups rallied to support candidates who backed their calls for change. While these weren’t explicitly “NO” groups, reading the room certainly seemed to presage a “NO” vote. I can tell you as someone who tried to inject facts about the practical impact of a “NO” vote on Question 1 (eventually being blocked by the group’s administrators for doing so) that there wasn’t much appetite for anything that ran counter to the anti-establishment, “throw the bums out” narrative. Clearly, the YES campaign and the override, broadly, were perceived as “pro establishment” efforts and treated accordingly.

Ultimately, the ballot box was where Belmont’s residents got their chance to speak back – and they did. Loudly.

Build that monument! Build that monument!

That “NO” vote, no doubt, was cathartic for residents. Unfortunately, Belmont’s children will be the ones who pay the bill for it when it comes due. Writing before the election, I urged Belmont parents not to build a monument to their anger at the schools. COVID and the failures of the past year would soon fade into memory, I argued. However, the effects of a failed override – diminished education in our schools – would be long-lasting, if not permanent. So much for that argument!

Let me say this: I’ve lived in town for 16 years now and am a veteran of more local campaigns that I can count, including numerous overrides and debt exclusions. My operating logic – borne of this close-up experience – has always been that April elections are very tough for those who seek progressive change or want to expand funding for the town and schools. The April electorate is a fraction of the size of November’s electorate and, generally, older and more conservative. However, my assumption was always that if a campaign could drive up turnout north of 35% and get parents of school age children to turn out in large numbers, progressive campaigns and causes had a very good chance of winning, even in April.

April 6 shattered that logic. We saw healthy turnout of 46% (though still a turnout that pales in comparison to November’s 84.6% turnout). Competitive School Committee races meant that parents of school aged children were engaged and turned out to vote for their candidate. And yet, clearly, many of those parents clearly voted “NO” on the override. They voted, in essence, for a fiscal plan that will see millions of dollars of planned education funding evaporate, at dear cost to their own child’s education. Honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I never thought I would see it. But it happened.

You Are Here…

The big question is “what comes next”? At the risk of making this post way too long, I’ll try to sketch out my thoughts on that question, with the proviso that you’re much better off talking to (or even just listening to) someone like Laurie Slap, the Chair of the Warrant Committee, or our new Select Board member and Financial Task Force veteran Mark Paolillo on this.

Projections of service cuts with a failed Proposition 2 1/2 Override Belmont Massachusetts

Teach, or Coach? Battles Looms Over Planned Cuts at BPS

On the schools side, slightly more than $2 million in cuts are on tap and an estimated 21 staff reductions have been promised. (This despite the NO campaign’s insistence that no sacrifice would be needed for a NO vote.)

Of course, there is likely to be a pitched battle over where to make those $2 million in cuts. As of last week, Superintendent Phelan is sticking close to his pre-election guidance on where the district will look to find those savings. That includes the elimination of 11 existing instructor positions: 3 elementary teachers, 2 middle school teachers and 2 high school teachers as well as 4 full time positions on the administration and staff support side. Also eliminated are 10 positions the district had hoped to fund including 4 full time teaching positions at the middle school and 2 at the high school as well as a special education chair at the elementary level and a technology integration specialist.

So far, BPS Superintendent Phelan is sticking to plans for staff reducations.

But as hypothetical becomes actual, there are hard questions being asked about those plans. Why should the district allow for so much as a single instructor position to be eliminated – diminishing the education the district offers -so long as there is money in the budget for non-core, non- instructional purposes like school athletics?

Of course, “athletics vs. instruction” is a terrible, Solomonic decision to have to make. But let’s face it: there’s upwards of $500,000 earmarked for athletics in the district’s budget. Freed up, that could be used to retain almost all the existing instructional staff positions that are now on the chopping block. It’s terrible that we need to have a conversation as a community about whether we fire teachers and stuff our elementary classrooms so we can keep JV and varsity sports, or whether we ditch JV and varsity sports so our elementary students’ learning doesn’t suffer. But that’s where we are. That’s where the “NO” vote leaves us.

Town Will Cut More than $1.3m

On the Town side, things are also in flux, but we can expect cuts resulting from the failure to pass the override on April 6 to track closely to the Town Administrator’s stated FY 22 NO Override plans, which were released earlier this year in expectation of the vote on the override.

The Town Administrator’s projected cuts resulting from a NO override vote.

Those plans outline cuts to a wide range of departments, from Community Development to DPW to the Town Clerk and Town Administrator’s Office to the public library. In general, expect Belmont’s government to get slower, less responsive and generally crappier in the months ahead.

The cuts to staff at the Office of Community Development will slow the turn around time for projects to be reviewed and signed off on, resulting in backlogs there. At DPW, lost staff will delay activities like snow removal, street sweeping, garbage collection from parks and commercial areas, and so on. Cuts to the Town Clerk’s Office and public library will lead to reductions in hours and less availability. Cuts to staff at BPD and BFD may hamper response to emergencies, and so on.

And – again – these are just the FY 22 cuts. FY 22 is actually not that bad, given Belmont’s surplus of free cash. As the Warrant Committee diagram above suggests, thing start heading downhill fast in FY 2023 and beyond, as our structural deficit balloons to more than $10 million dollars, necessitating truly draconian cuts to town and schools to live within the (artificial) constraints of Proposition 2 1/2.

We can fix this! (Can’t we?)

The days following the defeat of the override in the election has produced a bumper crop of clever ideas about how to steer around the worst of the damages that budget projections on the Schools and Town side suggest. I’ve heard a wide range of ideas for turning Belmont around – from the plausible/overdue (establishing PILOTs for the Town’s wealthy non-profits), to the intriguing (establishing a private endowment for BPS to stabilize funding) to the fanciful (community members volunteering to do the work of laid off Town and School employees).

I think that on matters of budget its always best to be conservative in your projections. That’s why I think the most likely course that Belmont will follow is the course of least resistance: cutting both Town and School services deeply to live within our constrained budget. We may forestall this with free cash for a year, but starting in FY 2023 and accelerating thereafter, we’re likely to see the need for very steep reductions in services to match very steep reductions in available operating revenue.

On the schools side, that will almost certainly lead to a large number of pink slips and class size increases to match. Non essential programming like art, music, theater and athletics will be squeezed, with sharp increases in fees or will disappear altogether. We can bicker about funding “coaches vs. teachers” this year – but by 2025 or so there really won’t be any discussion about it: athletics will need to be zeroed out of the operating budget just so we can support state mandated instructional positions.

On the Town side, it will be the same: the pace of road and sidewalk repaving will slow. Litter cans will overflow in our town centers and parks. If your road was slated for new asphalt in 2023, it might be 2025 or later now. If you need a building inspection for a new addition, you’ll wait a couple weeks longer for that. The BPL – already on a razor’s edge funding wise – may slip even further with greatly reduced hours and offerings. That could see us jettisoned from the Minuteman Library Network – again: probably not this year, but almost unavoidably by 2024 or so, barring an infusion of funds.

What will save us long term? Certainly the cries for “structural change” should be heeded. We need a more balanced budget and that means encouraging more commercial tax revenue. One way to do that might be to just increase commercial property taxes, which are currently pegged to residential property taxes. The other is to encourage commercial development in Town, as our neighbors in Watertown have done. But fostering development is a multi-decade project with no clear short term benefits.

So maybe we can look to automation and “digital transformation” in areas to replace the work done by Town employees now? Self service portals via a re-vamped Town website can eliminate trips to Town Hall and reduce the need for staff there. Traffic cameras that can assign tickets in key areas of town to reduce our reliance on expensive BPD officers to do traffic enforcement. A development officer for Belmont Public Schools might start the process of building an endowment for the district – though that is likely a multi-decade process that will cost us money in the short term.

All great ideas -but ones that are unlikely to pull us out of the fiscal nose dive that the vote on April 6th put us into. The challenge for the Town and Schools leadership in the near term will be making clear the path that our community is on and the real consequences of staying on it. (That is: no soft-pedaling cuts and no “death by 1,000 cuts.”) The other is to convince the voting public to support property tax increases above the 2 1/2% ceiling to keep the lights on, even as the Town begins the long and painful process of remaking itself. We’ll see how successful they are at doing that.