Year’s End

The last week of school!  Or, at least the last week until summer classes, enrichment programs, internships, and other activities begin.  To think that schooling ends on a date certain—whether the end of a school year or a graduation—is simple misperception.  Well over 150 of our educators will be engaged in workshops, retreats, curriculum development seminars, new sheltered immersion language training, among a host of other professional development opportunities.

This past year has been certainly successful and exciting.  The coming school year looks to be equally promising with innovations of instruction throughout the system.  The new elementary mathematics series will come on board the first day in September.  There will be new scheduling at the middle school along with an exciting upper grades science program.  The high school will continue to see the American Studies iPad program along with freshman classes piloting innovative instructional techniques that exploit the resources of the electronic informational world while honing student skills of organization and judgment.

I especially wish to thank Belmont’s educators for their faithful implementation of the new evaluation system, the Belmont Education Association for helping adapt the system for years to come, and the students who have strived diligently and successfully to grow emotionally, socially, and intellectually.

 

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Exciting Innovation Initiative

The Foundation for Belmont Education has just announced a new, major partnership with the Belmont Public Schools to inspire and to implement innovative instruction.  The partnership entails a four-year, $450,000 campaign that will enhance not only teaching practices that make use of content available electronically; but,  as important, the initiative will support exploration of teaching strategies that promise improved student engagement and improve development of students’ 21st century skills.  For example, Belmont educators may work with experienced web-based instructors to investigate and to pilot various and exciting ways of accessing web-based content.  Another possibility:  Teachers would develop project-based learning that would not necessarily be at all dependent on technology.  The partnership is thoroughly consonant with the district’s strategic goal to provide “support for educators to experiment and innovate” to the end that instruction ensures that “students will be well-prepared for college and career” in this the 21st century.

In addition to the professional development necessary for the research and designing of improved instructional models, the partnership will also provide the district means to ensure in time that every student might have the electronic tools which allow access to ever more current and richer content.  The technology-based learning tools may be instruments students already have and wish to use.  Through funds raised through the FBE, the district will provide students the option of receiving on loan an appropriate iPad should families so wish.  The variety of proposed innovation projects involve the full school system—pre-kindergarten through high school

In accord with the press release issued by the Foundation for Belmont Education, this innovative teaching initiative “expands on the FEB’s successful Technology Tools for Teaching campaign (2008-2011), which was the first step in creating 21st century classrooms through SMART Board installations.”  The Foundation will help support the cost of instruments for the 8th and 9th grade initiatives.   As part of incremental work with high school students, we will be asking rising 9th graders if they and their parents wish to use department-issued instruments or their own devices.  Middle school students engaged with the 8th grade science pilot will use classroom sets of iPads.

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Town Meeting

June 3 and June 5 are the evenings set aside for continuation of the regular Belmont Town Meeting.  The agenda is review and approval of the Town’s budget, including the allocation of funds for the School Department’s general operating funds for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.  The School Department budget for Fiscal Year 2014 will be tight but manageable.  The request for the General Fund, the amount the Town Meeting must approve, is $44,349,100, up $1,280,608 from the present fiscal year, an increase of 2.97%.  The full budget to run the School Department next fiscal year is actually $50,664,535, an overall increase from the present year of 3.38%.  The difference between the General Fund and full budget is made up from grants, revolving funds and fees, and credits.  About two-thirds of the overall budget goes for salaries and benefits.  About 20% is for operations and maintenance, with the remainder going to pupil services, materials and supplies, special services, and professional development.

 

To help the School Department balance the budget against available revenue, the Town is appropriating about $1.2 million from its reserve fund.  As well, the Board of Selectmen have approved an additional $150,000 from increased state appropriations.  The Department has requested a one-time grant of $57,500 from the Town’s Education Fund to purchase materials for a new elementary mathematics program, and various other grant sources will support innovation efforts and special projects.

 

Nonetheless, to balance the budget also requires some adjustments and belt-tightening.  Although there will be no reductions-in-force or other more drastic cuts, there are some necessary decreases in some services in order to meet the needs of a growing student population.  Four grade-level classroom aide positions at the Wellington will be eliminated; adjustments at the Chenery Middle School require the elimination of the foreign language exploration classes in the 5th grade; the equivalent of 2.8 professional positions have to be eliminated—one from Central Office and 1.8 from Belmont High School.

 

While the essential services and programs will remain intact, and while fees for extracurricular activities or full-day kindergarten will be the same, in the long term there will need to be thoughtful fiscal planning to achieve stability and predictability.  During the summer, the School Committee will be working with the Board of Selectmen to establish overall priorities, projected revenues, needs for services, and future growth.

 

 

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Schools and Libraries

Last week the Belmont School Committee and the School Department were faced with a Hobson’s Choice.  They had a decision to make, but there really was no viable set of alternatives.  To build the proposed new Belmont Library on the site currently planned, the School Department would need to transfer a playing field to the Town; and the Town in Town Meeting would then need to transfer the land to the library board.  However, without a viable alternative for replacing the lost field, the School Department and School Committee had no choice but to reject the transfer motion.

 

The Town has over the past two years explored several options for replacing the lost field from conversion of the Concord Avenue incinerator site to the Underwood Park and Pool.  None of the options emerged as practical.  Twenty-four hours prior to the vote, there emerged a proposal to build a comparable field by taking part of the existing high school parking lot and some of the tennis courts.  While the proposal is imaginative, I personally doubt it is viable. It would sacrifice land and play space in active current use and does not take into account the feasibility study for renovations at Belmont High School.

 

All leaders of the Belmont Public Schools genuinely wish for a 21st-Century library for the Town, one that students and citizens alike would embrace.  The Belmont Public Library has one of the highest usage rates in the area, and the current building is simply inadequate, and renovation is prohibitive.  The long-term solution must embrace a new library building, but the quest for usable land space and Town agreement upon that space is the critical first next step.

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Where the Budget Sits on May 1

Those employees of the Town of Belmont and those citizens who have lived through many more budget seasons than have I know all too well that the school year budget is never over until the final gavel rings at Town Meeting, this year on June 3.  Even then, the Legislature may add or detract (usually add); and subsequent adjustments have to be endorsed by the School Committee.  Furthermore, in the course of the school year, there are always revisions and realignments, reviewed by the new finance subcommittee of the School Committee, and incorporated into the quarterly reports presented publicly at the School Committee meetings and to the Warrant Committee.

 

What I had described as a “dire” budget submission six weeks ago I now describe as “constrained.”  There have been some considerable adjustments proposed by Town Administrator David Kale and presented to the Board of Selectmen.  The adjustments bring us much closer to what we had described as a “roll-ahead” budget, funding that essentially keeps in place next school year what is in place this year.  The roll-ahead budget does not provide any of the proposed additions we had originally hoped to have like the new mathematics series, for example, or additional classes at the elementary schools without having to make other adjustments.  We are working with donors like the Foundation for Belmont Education to ensure that we do not fall behind on researching and implementing innovation initiatives.

 

Because we on May 1 still have a projected shortfall of about $180,000, we will refrain from filling two positions being vacated by retirements—one at the Central Office and one at Belmont High School.  Additionally, we will cut four class sections at the high school to make up the additional four-fifths of a position we need to trim to balance the budget.  Because we must have a fifth second grade at the Wellington, we are eliminating the grade-level aides that had been at the school.  We are also using the savings from the aides to support at least a half-time assistant principal for the Wellington.  We will continue to cap new enrollments at the Wellington.

 

Over the next several months, the School Committee will be working closely together and with the Board of Selectmen to plan for the long term.  We will need to anticipate continued enrollment growth and to stabilize major cost factors.  With the Town, we will also need to anticipate the kind of predictable income stream that provides some confidence about economic stability over the ensuing four to five years.

 

 

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Places to Go for Help

Certainly this spring school vacation week has been different from any other. Besides the bombings themselves, the fact that Belmont was in lock-down on Friday during the critical manhunt may well have an impact on our children for weeks and months ahead.

Our schools continue to be safe places and refuges for all our children and youth. If parents, teachers, or counselors detect anxiety or concern on the part of students, they should certainly bring those concerns to the attention of school staff. Additionally, parents may wish to refer to a couple of excellent websites that provide some useful information about dealing with children’s worries in the light of broad civil crises:

http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/resources_for_families/talking_to_children_about_community_violence.

http://rems.ed.gov/HelpingYouthandChildrenRecoverFromTraumaticEvents.aspx

Boston Children’s Hospital has also offered two sites for information that might be helpful:

http://childrenshospitalblog.org/talking-to-children-after-tragedy/

http://nctsn.org/trauma-types/terrorism

We all owe our deepest gratitude to the wonderful public safety officers from local, state, and federal jurisdictions. The Belmont Public School district continues to treasure its close, collegial working relationship with the Belmont Police Department and, indeed, with safety officials throughout the state. Those relationships help maintain the security of our schools and the safety of Belmont’s children and youth.

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Where Are We with Safety

After the Newtown, Connecticut, school murders, there was probably no school district in the country that did not review its safety protocols and infrastructure. We asked representatives from the Belmont community safety organizations (fire, police) to join with school department representatives to review our schools and procedures and to recommend improvements we might make. In the interim, I’ve also had the opportunity to join with Chief McLaughlin from the Belmont Police Department in attending safety forums; and others have attended symposia sponsored by the Middlesex Partnership.
The School Safety Advisory Group has completed two of its three charges.

The advisory group has surveyed the school buildings and properties. On the basis of their observations and expertise, we constructed a list of projects and priorities; and we requested up to $100,000 from the Belmont Capital Budget Committee to address the highest priorities. At the same time, we anticipate that previously scheduled projects will be completed within the current school year: for example, locked doors and video cameras at the Chenery Middle School.

The advisory group has just issued for review of the school administration a revision of the policies and procedures manuals; and we will be editing, revising, and printing those documents between now and the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. In the interim, we have instituted some temporary measures such as the placement of building monitors at both the high school and middle school.

The last task on the advisory group’s list is to identify and recommend new or additional staff training. We have consistently engaged the building professionals in learning about emergency procedures; but with a review of those procedures and a new set of building manuals emerging, we need to determine how to revise our staff development program in such a way to ensure knowledge about, and yet protect the confidentiality and integrity of the procedures.

While a comprehensive review of building and personnel safety is always well undertaken, there can never be absolute assurance of total safety. For the full community to remain vigilant is a must if schools will continue to remain one of the safest environments for children.

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