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Belmont school officials paint dire budget picture

Posted by Sarah Thomas  February 9, 2011 10:40 AM

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Belmont residents who are worried about next year’s school budget should educate their neighbors about how a projected $2.9 million shortfall would affect the schools, School Committee members said Tuesday night.

‘‘The available revenue budget for the district is unconscionable,’’ chairwoman Ann Rittenburg said at a special meeting of the School Committee. "It's incumbent on all of us to educate our neighbors and engage with the community to get that message out."

Rittenburg's plea came on the heels of a community outcry over a potential $2.9 million budget gap, which would be filled by deep cuts to music, art, foreign language, social studies, and library programs.

Superintendent George Entwistle outlined the cuts and presented three possible budgets: one using available funds, another maintaining level services, and a third he termed ‘‘mission critical’’ because it contains some new items considered critical to the district’s mission.

‘‘Let me be clear; these mission critical items are not a wish list,’’ Entwistle said. ‘‘These are essential investments if we are going to stay abreast of our core mission.’’

That budget would restore a middle school guidance counselor and MCAS teacher, fund antibullying curriculum materials, and add quality assurance personnel to evaluate the district's curriculum, as well as badly-needed supplies like a new copier.

The gap between available funds and the ‘‘mission critical‘‘ budget is $2.9 million. Without the mission critical items, the gap shrinks to $2 million - possibly $1.5 million, if Governor Patrick's proposed increases to Chapter 70 and circuit breaker funding are passed in the state budget.

"The governor's budget, as it tends to be, is optimistic," Rittenburg said. "If the numbers hold, then we stand to get more aid, but there is a chance they will not."

Should the town not agree to fund either the mission critical budget or the level services budget, Entwistle said that deep cuts would be made across all grade levels.


"When I was a parent of a young child, I paid attention to what was happening in the elementary schools and didn't always pay attention to things that were only effecting the high schools," Entwistle said. "We wanted to take care to spread the impacts of these cuts across elementary, middle, and high schools."

In the elementary schools, two classroom teacher positions would be eliminated, along with the arts and music programs. Phys ed requirements would be cut in half, and the library program would remain unfunded. At the middle school level, foreign languages would be eliminated, along with three classroom teacher positions. High school students would lose their librarian, as well as electives in the social studies and foreign language departments. There would also be cuts to middle and high school sports programs, as well as the elimination of some administrative positions.

"Right now, our per-pupil expenditure and administrative expenditures are already below state averages," Entwistle said. "We are a tight, efficient organization that has had the undesirable task of cutting important things."

Those who attended the meeting had many questions for Entwistle and the school committee. Jim Staton, who is also a member of Town Meeting, asked if the budget contained any raises for teachers.

"The budget contains step and lane increases, which are part of the teacher's contract," said Tony DiCologero, the district's finance director. "We also have $168,000 in the budget for raises at the district's discretion." Entwistle noted that the budget did not contain cost of living raises, and said that all non-contract raises were on the table as possible areas to cut.

Jerry Shapiro, who has a daughter in the tenth grade, asked if having so many cuts to the curriculum hours meant the district was in danger of falling foul of state regulators.

Assistant superintendent Janice Darias said that the state's mandate to provide 990 hours of education to high school students per year was one that many districts struggle with.

"The biggest consequence to us is that our kids aren't prepared for the future," Rittenburg added.

Irina Rosenblum wanted to know how the district planned to engage with the public when discussing the budget.

"People move here for the school's art and music programs," Rosenblum said. "There are hundreds of kids involved. Most of the people here already feel strongly, but what about everyone else?"

School committee member Dan Scharfman said there were limits to what the committee could do, as state law forbids them from using public funds to advocate for a particular political position.

"We can have informative meetings, like this, and give you the tools to go out and have discussions with your neighbors," Scharfman said.

The next meeting of the Belmont school committee will be helf on Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at Chenery Middle School.

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

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