Questions for School Committee Candidates: Tara Donner

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 final response is from School Committee Candidate Tara Donner. Tara is a resident of Belmont, the mother of two and a sitting School Committee member who is seeking her second, full term on the Committee. Her unique experience includes 18 years of middle school teaching and 14 years serving as a Town Meeting Member. Her 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? 

Tara Donner, Belmont School Committee
Tara Donner, Belmont School Committee member and candidate for re-election.

Hang in there! This year has been tremendously stressful for everyone, but most especially for families with children. Families and school staff alike found themselves working from home, needing to supervise their school-aged children or struggling. Both had to balance health concerns with the desire to get students back in the classroom. In order to accomplish this, the BPS took an approach that was scientifically-centered based on the research available at the time each decision was made and was feasible given the resources available to us. Belmont has had an extent of both space and staffing constraints that private schools, and many other area public schools systems, have not had to contend with. 

The community has been quite divided about wh at form of school they wanted for their children. In the fall, surveyed parents reported about one-third wanted full in person school at that time, one-third wanted hybrid, and one-third wanted fully remote school. We had to ensure that all students were served, whether they could return to the classroom or needed to stay remote. But whatever the school department and School Committee chose, two-thirds of families were not getting what they wanted. 

The goal was always a safe plan to educate our students during the largest public health emergency of the last century. Knowing what we know now, I wish we had started our indoor air quality analysis work sooner, created community working groups to incorporate more parent and community perspective sooner, and undertaken more aggressive representative surveying of BPS families. As things stand now, it has been a long and hard year for everyone, but we are well on our way back to full in-person learning that involves collaboration between all stakeholders: families, teachers, and administration. 

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

With new guidance from DESE and the CDC, we are proceeding to full in-person learning at all levels. The return of warmer weather means that we can move activities outdoors and keep windows open in classrooms, and the pace of vaccinations is cause for optimism with regards to keeping community infection rates low. As the situation outside the schools improves, it makes our job of getting students back to “normal” easier. However, the transition will not be simple: students may be reassigned to different teachers, and we will need to be attentive to their emotional and educational needs as they transition. The amount of preparatory work required is also substantial: purchasing tables and tents to accommodate socially distanced lunches, rearranging classrooms and shared spaces, hiring new teachers and aides, etc. We must also continue to provide an equitable education to all of our students who will remain remote for the remainder of the school year. 

We have one enormous change on the horizon for the fall of 2021: the move, on-schedule, to the new 9-12 school, and the beginning of Phase 2 of construction. As anyone who has ever moved house knows, the physical work to pack up is substantial and is already underway. As this big change happens, we will return to a new normal in the other schools. The School Committee will need to interpret guidance from DESE and the CDC on what health measures will endure into the new school year and what things will look more like what we are used to. It is certain that many students will come back with heightened anxieties or with gaps in learning that require extra support. It is vital that we pass the Override this spring so that we have adequate staffing to address these needs. 

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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?

Mutual respect and trust is critical to a productive relationship with the BEA. Teachers are the single most important element of our students’ success. Teachers want the same thing that parents, administrators, and the School Committee want: a great education for our students. As an experienced Town Meeting Member (14 years in Belmont, 3 years in Milton when I was in college), I know the town view of the budget well. As a 19 year teacher, I know the resources necessary to provide a great classroom experience for students. As an experienced School Committee member, I know the challenges of aligning the limitations of the resources available with the needs of the students. The intersection of my areas of experience give me a unique position from which to make sure the SC is managing a healthy relationship with the BEA for our common goal: an excellent education for all students. 

Recently, the School Committee, the administration, and the BEA have shifted the way in which contracts are discussed by having the SC attend every joint-labor management weekly meeting in order to streamline the process of negotiating. I am hopeful that this strategy will continue to improve the work that the BEA, SC, and administration do together. 

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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?

The challenges caused by a global pandemic have diminished the educational experience for students around the globe. The Belmont Public Schools must make sure to evaluate the supports each student needs, both academic and social-emotional, as we continue on the path out of the pandemic. In Belmont, steps we can take to address these setbacks include making sure every child has access to extra support whether or not they qualify for special education services. The first step is to create a “Summer Recovery Academy” to address skill gaps that struggling students have developed. The next step is to make sure that throughout the school year next year there is ongoing support for every student who needs it to continue to address areas of academic deficit. This may take the form of an ongoing “recovery academy” to offer intensive support for students who need it throughout the school year. 

We also need to make sure we have a strong set of mental health supports, including a social worker at every school, to help manage the social-emotional needs of students. We need to pay special attention to students who moved schools this year or will move next year (i.e. next year’s 5th/6th and 9/10th graders). They did not have the time to say goodbye to their schools last year in person, and did not get time to acclimate in a traditional way to their new school building this year (next year’s 6th/10th graders). Special orientation programming for these grade levels as we enter into next year’s school year could be beneficial in helping those students to adapt to their new schools. 

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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?

The pandemic exposed the difficulties of running a school district with lean budgets. The fact that Belmont is in the bottom 3% of districts across Massachusetts when it comes to the number of teachers per 100 students and in the bottom 6% of per pupil expenditures is hugely problematic in the best of times. But in the pandemic, the skeletal staffing and administrative model necessitated by the lean budget meant that many options that better funded schools had to create more in-person school time sooner were not available to Belmont.

In “regular,” non-pandemic time, the lean spending during a time (2011-2019) when our enrollment grew by 733 students as a district has led to large class sizes at all grade levels, and fewer types of staffing positions that modern schools rely on regularly to provide a rich education. Though I am proud of the fact that I advocated for an end to the highest fee in our district–the full-day kindergarten fee, which was eliminated this year–the fees families in our district still pay for athletics, clubs, arts, and music activities are extraordinarily high compared to most other districts.

Solutions are needed, which include an operating override now. In the future, we need to pursue additional solutions to alleviate the burden of residential taxes on Belmontonians such as:

  • expanding our commercial tax base by making Belmont more business-friendly;
  • aggressive and creative pursuit of federal, state, and private grant funding; and
  • continued advocacy on the state level for changes in the state aid funding formula to account for high property values which are not matched by equally high median incomes.

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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 School Committee has control over HOW to allocate the amount of funding it receives, and a duty to advocate for WHAT is needed, but does not control the ultimate AMOUNT of money allocated to the school budget from the town. The amount of money the schools will get is typically decided on the town level before the School Committee gets a chance to formally participate in the discussion. Along with other School Committee members this year, I have advocated for reform in the way the town budget process works so that the School Committee is part of the process of determining the amount the schools will get before it is too late to have any influence over the number. 

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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?

In my three years of experience as an SC member and all the years of my working life, I have seen time and again how important collaboration is. To be an effective SC member, building relationships with other SC members, the members of the school administration, and the BEA are all critically important. We are a team, and no one person can make decisions without the buy-in of the other team members. While it is a cliche, the old saying that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is definitely true.

You cannot effectively influence the outcome of a discussion which several people have jurisdiction over if you have not built trust with the other people making those decisions and carrying out the day to day work. While we may have different opinions about how to achieve “the best” for students, recognizing that we are all doing this work because we  ultimately share the goal of providing the best education possible for our students is critical. With that trust, speaking up about how you believe the work needs to move forward is an invitation to collaborate. Without that trust, it is hard to make any progress at all. 

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

Every child deserves an excellent education, and to feel supported, seen, and safe. My 19 years of classroom teaching have given me intimate familiarity with the wide range of talents and needs individual students exhibit. Supporting that range is the moral obligation of not only each teacher, but also the full community. We must work together to find ways to support that specialized instruction even when the state does not adequately fund those legally required services. Important methods of supporting our learners with disabilities now and in the future include: 

  • Adding special education team chairs at the elementary level to free up existing special educators to better focus on their instructional time with students, 
  • Maintaining partnerships with other communities in collaborative programs for specialized needs in a cost effective manner, and 
  • Advocating for the state to fully fund the special education circuit breaker program every year

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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, like many of the institutions in our country, the Belmont Public Schools has an equity and inclusion problem. One manner of quantifying this problem of equity and inclusion is to look at the data that shows us how students of color are not meeting with standardized measures of success at the same rate as either the district as a whole or as compared to white peers. This administration of the BPS identified this opportunity gap in recent years and has been working hard to address the structural elements of our education system that are failing students of color. However, that is just one point of data, and equity and inclusion weaknesses are not limited to how our Black and brown students perform on standardized measures. Anecdotal data tells us that students, families and staff in other marginalized identity groups are also experiencing struggles. The fact that we continue to experience episodes of racist graffiti in our schools is certainly another indicator that a serious problem exists. 

Some steps to systematically address these deeply rooted problems include: 

  • An equity audit by an outside consultant to assess additional equity issues in a comprehensive manner
  • Develop a formal recruitment, hiring, and retention strategy for additional teachers who more accurately reflect the diversity of our population, in consultation with the equity audit consultants
  • Continue to educate teachers about implementing the principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching to improve the education of our students 
  • Establish the role of director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the central administration level to guide the ongoing work to make our school system equitable for all 
  • Develop coordinated curriculum at all grade levels to prepare our our students to dismantle the systems of oppression our country has nurtured for far too long 

Among the work I am most proud of in my three years on the School Committee are my contributions to work to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Belmont Public Schools. I am proud to have co-founded the Equity Subcommittee of the School Committee. But this work is nowhere near done and requires much future attention to keep the conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion at the forefront of how we proceed as a district.

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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?

There are many viewpoints on whether or to what extent leveling benefits students based on years of educational research. As things stand now, Belmont does offer multiple levels of math in 6th and 7th grade. Our job going forward is not to make all students fit into one box: it is to provide an equitable education that meets the needs of all students. Recent research supports depth of learning instead of breadth: allowing students to dig deeper into concepts and make better connections before moving on. Moving forward for next year, there are plans in the works to add some additional middle school math curriculum based on the MX2 Geometry program, thanks to advocacy of parents.

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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. 

I will be voting yes on the override. I am running for a seat on the SC to be an advocate for our children and their education. A no vote on the override will have many deleterious impacts on our children’s education.

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