Kid Pro Quo: Mega-Donor Jones Tapped For School Committee

Consummate Belmont insider and local political mega-donor Ralph Jones got the nod for an open School Committee slot to the surprise of absolutely no one.

And still – a puzzling choice. Jones last sat on School Committee in 2004 – during the first term of GW Bush when our current BHS juniors were swaddled up and leaving the maternity ward. His most recent engagement on matters related to our public schools was arguing that talking about per pupil spending in our district is “nonsense” and that how much we spend, on average, to educate our students is a meaningless statistic when trying to understand the level of our community’s support of its public schools.

So how did Ralph become the ‘change we need’ on School Committee at this critical juncture?

Well, all else being equal, it might be useful to look at the campaign finance reports of the five vote majority of Select Board and School Committee who appointed him. That’s where you’ll learn that Jones and his wife Sherry were top donors to the campaigns of two of the three sitting Select Board members. Additionally, he was the Chairman of the third Select Board member(Adam Dash’s) 2017 campaign. He was also the top donor to the two sitting School Board members who voted him in.

Here are the numbers:

CandidateCampaignAmount Donated (Ralph & Sherry Jones)Donor rankAverage donation
Roy Epstein2019$2,0001$163
Mark Paolillo2016$5001 (tie)$179*
Jamal Saeh2021$2,0001$294*
Meg Moriarty2021$2,0001 $249
(*) Based on itemized donations above $50

Not a good look, Belmont

Did voting after receiving substantial campaign donations from one of the candidates constitute a conflict of interest? From what I can tell, the answer is “no.” Simply receiving campaign contributions generally isn’t considered an act that generates a conflict of interest for sitting politicians. (And that’s certainly what I heard from voting members when I reached out to them ahead of the vote.)

Furthermore, it’s not as if Ralph received some valuable Town contract as a result of this decision. What he received, for all intents and purposes, is the opportunity to volunteer his time to the Town. As with any unpaid volunteer, including all the seated School Committee members, we should thank him for doing so, even if we scratch our heads as to why he’s doing so.

Having said that, there is some debate in legal and campaign finance circles about where to draw the line on this, and whether there may be a question of conflict of interest when the size (or volume) of contributions are outsized. If Ralph made a couple $100 or $200 pledges to these candidates, nobody would think twice about it. But the size of his contributions and his stature as the top donor to so many of those who voted him onto School Committee is hard to ignore.

What is indisputable is that this isn’t a good look for either Select Board or School Committee, which had 12 candidates to choose from: almost all parents of school age children and many with impressive resumes in law (Zuccarello), education (Liberty), life sciences (Robertelli) and business (Leighton) to recommend them for the School Committee position.

This is especially true after two years of intense community- and parent interest and engagement with the School Committee. That two years saw considerable frustration with business as usual in the Town. In April, two upstart candidates (Jamal Saeh and Meg Moriarty) unseated incumbents, an almost unheard-of occurrence. With that recent history, appointing an old political hand and Belmont political insider is just tone deaf, I believe. Families are clamoring for change. Belmont’s political leadership gave them more of the same.

Round Up The Usual Suspect

How so? For one thing, being a “consummate insider” in Belmont -practically speaking- means that if you look around you at what’s broken with our schools, roads, public buildings and services, Ralph Jones was almost certainly part of the majority that voted a decade or two ago to break it.

Here’s one example: as a Select Board member from 2008 to 2014, Ralph oversaw a Town budget in crisis and shepherded two unsuccessful Prop 2 1/2 override votes to address that crisis in June of 2008 and 2010.

You could say “well, it wasn’t his fault those overrides failed – that’s on voters.” But no. The two override votes on Ralph’s watch were engineered to fail. How so? In both cases, the Select Board he was a member of shunted the override question to special elections in June, rather than putting it before voters in April or (even better) November votes, which enjoy far higher turnout. Turnout in each of the June special election votes was a small fraction of Belmont’s registered voting population and skewed heavily towards older voters, dooming passage of the override questions which was, of course, the goal.

Practically: the failure of both votes led to deep cuts in school and town services – the legacy of which is with us today in anemic staffing, thread bare course offerings and crowded classrooms.

Then, rather than reading the results of the June votes and doing what it takes to get an override passed – say by scheduling it for a November vote alongside a statewide or federal race – Ralph did an about face: publicly opposing an override in February 2011, just six months after pushing for the passage of one in June 2010, and accusing the School Administration of “hiding money” in the process. (Yes, that old saw.)

For Belmont, it would take another four years of cuts, class size increases, fees and “level funding” budgeting to get an override vote on the ballot: the April 2015 ballot measure, which passed. By that time, Ralph had left office.

That anecdote captures what is a pattern for Ralph: publicly backing things like overrides and debt exclusions while simultaneously using his voice and influence to undercut them. (Thus the ideological whiplash of donating to the YES FOR BELMONT campaign this past spring, but then putting his pen to a series of op-eds critical of those calling for higher per pupil spending. Those op-eds gave ammunition to the NO override vote and helped kill the YES campaign…success?

The Definition of Political Insanity…

As the saying goes: one definition of insanity is to keep trying the same thing, but expecting a different outcome. A political corollary of that might be that insanity is to keep turning to the same people to lead you, but expecting different kinds of leadership.

And that’s actually the message here. There were plenty of other qualified candidates for the open School Committee post this week: parents of school age children with a deep and personal investment in the condition of our schools and a fresh set of eyes to look at the myriad problems facing our schools.

Instead, Belmont’s political leadership opted for what felt safe and comfortable: a guy who has been there before. But what Belmont needs more than ever right now is new ideas and new leadership to tackle the problems- not old hands and the kinds of conventional (and let’s just say it: conservative) thinking that got us to where we are today.

I’m disappointed – as I’m sure you can tell. The conflict of interest question isn’t the (primary) cause of my disappointment. But, as I said: “not a good look” and a really sour those who raised impassioned calls for change and new leadership.

Looking to the future: this is a five month, temporary appointment. We should see a field of exciting new candidates for School Committee come January or February and I hope many of the folks who threw their hat in for the interim appointment decide to run come Springtime. And we need new leadership across the board: School Committee, Select Board, Capital Budget Committee, Warrant Committee, Town Moderator – you name it.

To make sure we’re not stuck with the Usual Suspects come April, we’re all going to have to organize and pay a lot more attention to what’s going on in Town and behind the scenes. I hope you’re with me.