We Belmont parents have a choice next Tuesday. We can vote YES on Question 1 and deliver desperately needed funds to our public schools so they can continue reducing class sizes, supporting special education, and funding electives and extracurricular offerings like athletics, theater, arts and music. Or we can vote NO and see an estimated $2 million in funds cut from the budget next year – and $5 to $8 million in subsequent years – in order to live within the artificial constraints imposed by Proposition 2 1/2.
In an ordinary year, I’d say that this “choice” is a no-brainer: that if parents turn out, there’s no way they would countenance draconian cuts to the public schools that their children attend and that they rely on. This year, I would like to think that conventional wisdom holds true. But I’m not so sure. Our collective anger and disappointment at Belmont’s handling of COVID risk turning parents against the schools, plunging our schools into a fiscal crisis that could last years and forever degrade the quality of education we offer our children. I hope – pray – I’m wrong.
Good Reasons to Be Angry
To be clear: we Belmont parents have plenty of reasons to be angry at our local school administration, our elected School Committee and our teachers union. Handed the ball at a critical juncture, our public schools fumbled it…then tripped over the ball they just fumbled. In short: it was a mess.
While other districts near us worked decisively and cooperatively last summer to formulate a plan to put children back in the classroom our School administration, teachers and School Committee hemmed and hawed – delaying the start of in person learning to late in the fall and even then in a form that most parents and children found ineffective. From summer through fall, parents – many of them subject matter experts – poured hundreds of hours researching issues like physical distancing and air quality in order to help our district formulate a plan to safely return children to the classrooms. Time and again they were told, essentially, to “talk to the hand.” School Committee meetings became passion plays in which hundreds of desperate and exasperated parents ran up against an intransigent and tone-deaf Committee and torrents of officious educationspeak from school officials.
A Crisis Years In the Making
So, yeah: we’re angry and disappointed. We have a right to be. But let’s be clear: the message of the last year isn’t just about some elected officials and educational professionals who let us down. It is also about how years of conspicuous and deliberate underfunding of our town and schools set us up for failure. Sure, we can have well-meaning debates about the exact impact of spending on education and educational outcomes. It’s much harder to debate that years of financial “can-kicking” and an anemic education budget resulted in our Town having fewer administrative, teaching and support staff than other districts our size. This, in turn, hampered every aspect of our response to COVID this year.
[See also: “Opinion: Stop the Slide, Belmont”]
But the response to that next Tuesday cannot be to tighten the screws of fiscal austerity even more – to punish our our students by withdrawing money from our already cash strapped schools. Belmont’s in-district per pupil spending is already in the lowest quarter of school districts in Massachusetts. A “NO” vote will see $2 million in funds taken out of the budget for next year, even with the use of the town’s cash reserves. The force of that blow will not land on teachers or administrators, but on students – your children and mine – who will see fewer course and extracurricular offerings (including AP classes), larger class sizes and less support of all kinds: from teachers, to student clubs to social workers.While Federal aid from the American Rescue Plan is coming Belmont’s way, we shouldn’t expect it to solve our budget woes; most of that money is earmarked for COVID relief and to help communities recover lost revenue from the last year. It’s not intended to paper over structural budget deficits like the one plaguing Belmont.
Belmont: Don’t Build A Monument To Anger
I share your anger. But voting “NO” on Question 1 won’t “teach a lesson” to the School Committee and administration. As our nation, our state and our town begin to move on from COVID, voting “NO” on Tuesday will simply build a monument to our anger, disappointment and frustration.
It will be an ugly monument, to be sure, and one that will loiter around town for years to come: impoverishing the quality of education our children receive, expanding the gap between children from wealthy and economically disadvantaged homes and denying thousands of Belmont students opportunities to do advanced coursework or fully explore areas like art, music, theater, and athletics. This video from recent BHS grads is a testament to how transformative that early exposure can be in shaping minds and careers. After the last failed override in 2010, it took five full years for the Town’s leadership to bring another before voters. Those were years that saw a steady erosion of school programming to live within “level service” (read: “level funding”) budgets. Our district might not pull out of another tailspin like that.
Look to the Future: Vote YES on Question 1
The alternative to that ugly monument is, of course, to build a different monument altogether: one that recognizes our disappointment in the last year, but expresses our hopes for the future and our core faith in the importance and transformative power of high quality, public education.
By voting YES on Question 1, you will ensure that our schools can continue to maintain and even expand our investment in small class sizes and a wide range of electives and extracurricular coursework. You’ll help maintain the athletic offerings available to students and courses in music, the visual arts and theater that can transform young lives. As hard as we fought through this pandemic to make life as normal for our children as we can is as hard as we need to fight to make sure that we relegate COVID to the history bin and don’t allow its terrible legacy to linger in Belmont. The best way to do that is to vote YES on Question 1. I hope you’ll join me in doing so this Tuesday.
Editor, Blogging Belmont”
Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8
Parent of Eliana BHS ‘19, Shira BHS ‘20 and Ruby BHS ‘23