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It's time for an override, some in Belmont say

Posted February 6, 2011 09:25 AM

Undeterred by the town's failure to pass a tax increase last year, a group of Belmont citizens - young and old - have begun pressing again for a Proposition 2 1/2 override to help fund the public schools.

"We feel strongly that an override is an issue that should be put before the voters," said Greg Stone, co-chair of an organization called Save Our Schools, Save Our Town. "To me, the issue of preserving the quality of our schools is an issue that trumps many others."

The citizen's group came together after budget documents were presented to the town's warrant committee that said the district could be facing a $2.9 million budget gap for fiscal 2012, which officials said would be offset by cutting programs in music, foreign language, and other areas.

School committee chairwoman Anne Rittenburg said that the projections were still in their early stages.

"The budget that the district presented was what they called a 'mission critical' budget, which was designed to maintain the integrity of the district's structures, programs, and goals," Rittenburg explained. "We were asked by the warrant committee to also prepare a budget that provided strict level services, which will probably have a gap that is closer to $2 million."

Nonetheless, Rittenburg said that she believes the "mission critical" budget is the one the town needs to fund, and that part of that funding strategy would mean an override.

"There are a lot of other things that need to happen as well, such as finding efficiencies and looking for savings in employee negotiations," Rittenburg said. "But the district has not had an infusion of revenue from a Proposition 2 1/2 override since 2002, and it's time for Belmont to recognize that key component."

Many of the residents involved in Save Our Schools, Save Our Town aren't newcomers to advocating for Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. A similar attempt to pass a $2 million override last year was defeated at a special election by just under 400 votes. It was supported by a political action committee called One Belmont.

"The need we were responding to then hasn't gone away; it's become more urgent," said Uli Klingbeil, who was One Belmont's treasurer. "I don't know how different the climate is in town because I'm not a polling person, but I do think it's become a lot clearer to people, especially parents, what the results of having less school funding are."

Klingbeil said he believes one of the main reasons last year's override failed was a series of 'robocalls' in the days immediately preceding the election, which he said spread misinformation on what the tax increase would be used for. The source of the calls was never revealed.

"The calls said that the money would be used to give more money for teachers. Of course, teachers' salaries are the result of contract negotiations, and no vote can change a contract," Klingbeil said.

Klingbeil said he plans to be involved with Save Our Schools, Save Our Town, which is the largest of the groups that have already coalesced around the budget issue. The other is Students and Belmontians Working for a Brighter Future, a group of concerned students who have organized on Facebook and sent a representative, Paul Green, to speak at the most recent Board of Selectmen meeting. About 100 concerned citizens in total attended, including Stone.

"I heard Paul speak, and I thought he was quite articulate and forthright," Stone said. "I was involved behind the scenes last year, and I can tell you the climate is different now. I've never seen such concern."

Stone is a parent of two Belmont students, a daughter in high school and a son in the eighth grade. He said that underfunding the schools can have an effect on property values, something that touches residents even if they don't have school age children.

"If we read the documents at face value, the impact these cuts would have on our curriculum is severe and dire, and threatens a school system that has achieved national prominence," Stone said.

Not everyone agrees. Alfred Garozzo, a former substitute teacher, has had two daughters go through the Belmont school system. Last year, he circulated leaflets urging residents to vote against the override and says he plans to make the same argument this year.

"I agree with the priority of education, but I think the town wastes money by funding things, like the football program, that don't benefit all the students," Garozzo said. "The school and the town seem to find ways to spend money they don't need to spend."

Stone said Save Our Schools, Save Our Town plans to attend the next Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday and would be crafting a strategy over the weekend. Ralph Jones, chair of the Board of Selectmen, said it could be weeks before the board can make a decision on whether to support an override.

"Everyone was very helpful and respectful when they spoke at the last meeting, but it's too early to say what our decision will be," Jones said. "We will be taking a leadership position and getting all the stakeholders together to talk. We're not just going to sit here waiting."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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