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School Budget Woes

By: Katarina Maldarelli and Chaivin Moon

The Belmont Public Schools is currently experiencing the effects of budget cuts due to the failure of the override of Proposition 2 ½. A “Yes” vote on this ballot question would have allowed the town of Belmont to increase property taxes beyond the legal cap of 2.5%. As a result, the Belmont Public Schools has been confronted with a budget shortfall of $2.1 million. In addition, according to Meghan Moriarity, the Chair of the School Committee, the Belmont Public Schools is also dealing with a budget freeze, which she explained was being driven by increased costs for out-of-district programs, as well as a whopping 14% tuition increase for those programs. For insight into the budget freeze and cuts, we sat down for interviews with the BHS principal, Isaac Taylor, and Chairwoman Moriarty.

Mr. Taylor and Ms. Moriarty provided very enlightening insights. Mr. Taylor addressed the pressing question of how the budget shortfall might affect class size and teaching staff. He explained that there is increased enrollment in the high school and decreased enrollment in lower grades. He described this increased enrollment in BHS as a “bubble” that moved from the elementary school to the middle school, and is now impacting the high school. Because of the increased number of students in grades 9-12, the high school will actually be gaining three more educators, which allows class sizes to remain the same. Ms. Moriarty seemed to share many of Mr. Taylor's views regarding class size. In fact, she stated that when preparing the school budget, schools always focus on class size. She added that while ideally class size would have been reduced for FY24, at least it did not increase.

Regarding classroom assistants, although there are not many of them at the high school who could be impacted by the budget cuts, this is not true of K - 8, which employs many such additional support staff. Of concern is whether cuts in classroom assistants in the lower grades could be harmful to young students' development in social skills, because the close emotional and social relationship is missing. Ms. Moriarty commented that the benefit of classroom assistants was nowhere more apparent than in kindergarten classes, where the presence of such assistants results in noticeably improved student behavior and learning. Ms. Moriarty and the school committee acknowledged that the role of classroom assistants in lower grades is very important, and because of this, they retained them in the budget, and offset the cost by an increase in student fees for athletics. In addition, Mr. Taylor acknowledged that due to the budget cuts, fewer substitutes will be hired, especially in the high school. Ms. Moriarty confirmed this and stated that daily subs would not be hired at the high school. Instead, teachers only missing for one day would be replaced by a free period. Teachers with longer absences would continue to be replaced by substitute teachers. However, the school committee ensured that the freeze on the hiring of daily substitutes at the high school would not apply to the elementary or middle schools. We were happy to learn this, since younger students benefit from the additional support. We feel compelled to mention one comment that Mr. Taylor made on this subject, because it impressed us so much. He said, very movingly in our opinion, that all cuts in staffing “are done with a heavy heart.” We feel that this shows a genuine appreciation for teachers’ contribution to students and how they have the students' best interests at heart.

The other area that saw an unfortunate negative impact due to the budget freeze was extracurricular programs. For example, Mr. Taylor regretfully said that the fees charged to families to participate in extracurricular activities could increase, due to the freeze. Likewise, Ms. Moriarty informed us that the school committee had voted to increase student fees for athletics by $35.00 to offset their decision to retain crucial classroom assistants in the lower grades. In response to our question about whether the increased fees would be unfairly burdensome to some families, both Mr. Taylor and Ms. Moriarty confirmed that students could request waivers, if necessary.

On the bright side, while there are many problems and downsides to the budget freeze and budget cuts, not all is doom and gloom. Both interviewees expressed how important and helpful the PTSO (Parent Teacher Student Organization) and organizations like them are to bridging the budget gap. Mr. Taylor explained the many ways the PTSO has reached out to help. For instance, the PTSO created a “Wishlist” for staff, which gave the school the ability to specify needs. Mr. Taylor also mentioned that another “victim” of the budget freeze was the student mural, but he happily added that the PTSO graciously offered to help them fund it. Additionally, Ms. Moriarty specifically mentioned POMS (Parents Of Music Students) and PAC (Performing Arts Company) as two organizations that do what she termed “tons of fundraising” for the school. Both Mr. Taylor and Ms. Moriarty expressed their appreciation for the PTSO and other fundraising organizations and admitted that many things would not have been possible without them.

Although this budget freeze and these budget cuts are challenging, the school committee and administrators of the Belmont Public Schools appear to have done an excellent job to ensure that student learning and experiences aren’t too negatively impacted by them. Bottom line, even though these problems are under control for the time being, both Mr. Taylor and Ms. Moriarty expressed the sentiment that the only real solution to this issue is to pass the override of Proposition 2 ½ next year. If this is true, hopefully Belmont voters will vote “Yes” on the override next time.

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