The Minuteman Referendum

The School Committee for the Minuteman Regional Vocational School has scheduled a special election on Tuesday, September 20 (polls open between noon and 8PM) to determine whether the regional school district shall approve expenditure of $144.9 million for a proposed new school building.  This will be the first school project that I have ever voted against and it is likely to be the only school project that I will ever vote against.

I am a passionate supporter of education generally and vocational education in particular.  In general, I feel that, as expensive as education is, it is one of the best investments we can make.  In particular, vocational education, as an alternative path into the work force, is something we should be trying to create more of.

But, I truly feel that the Minuteman school is a broken model.   Over the past few decades, Minuteman has drifted further and further away from its core mission — providing vocational education to students from its member communities.  It has drifted away both in terms of who it serves and in terms of the curriculum that it provides.

First, it has become more and more dependent on admitting students from non-member communities.  According to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Minuteman, Minuteman is an outlier among the vocational schools in the state, admitting 40.5% of its students from non-member communities in the last school year.   Half of the 29 regional vocational schools admitted no students from non-member communities and the statewide average was 6.1%.

Non-member students pay a much lower rate than member community students, $16,464 in FY17 (which may work out to roughly $20,000 after transportation and special education charges), instead of the $25-30,000 per year paid by member communities.  The theory is that non-member communities should pay only the actual marginal costs involved in accommodating them.  They aren’t expected to cover their share of the fixed costs of the school.

The non-member rate is set by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  DESE is limited in its ability to set higher rates by the concern that higher rates would lead to more school systems attempting to create their own, less-expensive local vocational programs.   The average per pupil expenditure in the Belmont schools is roughly $13,000 per pupil.

While the marginal cost pricing may make sense in systems where only a small fraction of the students are paying the lower rate, in the case of Minuteman, it is very hard to defend.  The member communities are deeply subsidizing the students from non-member communities and pay very high tuition as a result.

The debt service costs for the proposed new school would raise per student assessments by $8,463 per student based on full projected enrollment.  DESE has the power to add a capital assessment to the fees paid by non-member communities, but that assessment is not likely to exceed the average cost.  No one should expect a capital assessment to reduce the existing disparity between member and non-member communities.   Such an assessment might, in fact, be based on a marginal capital cost concept that would increase the gap between what member and non-member communities pay.

Update re capital assessment

On September 15, Commissioner Chester transmitted a letter explaining DESE’s approach to the capital assessment on non-member districts to help cover the cost of the proposed new building.

Non-member districts who don’t have vocational programs of their own will pay the same capital costs per student as member districts. Non-member districts who have qualifying vocational programs of their own will pay 75% of that amount.

Currently, 74 students come from non-member districts that would pay the full amount and 178 from districts that would pay the lower amount. So, on average, based on current enrollment, non-member districts would pay an average of 82% of what member districts pay per student for capital costs. This difference will be on top of the existing gap in operating cost assessments and will work to somewhat expand the current inequity.

The announcement does not affect the basic per student operating charge per student for students from non-member districts and there is no discussion of raising that charge. So, the roughly $10,000 gap between what member districts and non-member districts pay in total will continue and slightly expand, even with the capital assessment.

Those who take the time to read the letter may note that the letter uses a lower number for debt service than Minuteman is using. That appears to be an error, but the letter is clear as to how the model works.

The other respect in which Minuteman has departed from its mission is that it is no longer primarily focused on students who are directly entering vocations that do not require a college education.  Almost half (49.3%) of Minuteman students go on to college, many to private 4-year colleges.  Minuteman is affirmatively aspiring to expand its offerings in fields that most commonly require 4 year college degrees — such as computer programming and biotechnology.  Minuteman is in no way obliged by state law to focus on students who need an alternative to college and is entirely free to set its own admission criteria.

Fundamentally, due to a lack of enrollment from its member communities in basic vocational programs, Minuteman has sought to fill its seats by broadening its catchment area and broadening its offerings.  But, in doing so, it is duplicating offerings in local schools, and straining local school budgets by diverting scarce taxpayer resources.

The question will not be on the ballot in Boston, which has its own vocational schools, or in Watertown — Watertown is not a member community, but does send a number of students to Minuteman.  Belmont should say No to the referendum and, by so doing, be allowed to withdraw from the district and send its students to Minuteman on the same lower-cost basis that Watertown does.

While I have a clear view on the issue, I do not think it is a simple issue and I very much would welcome discussion here it.

Responding to Comments

To those who ask “What is the alternative?”, I offer the following.

Vocational/technical education is not one thing — it is a collection of different programs that serve very diverse young people. I do not embrace the notion that there needs to be one kind of institution to meet that basket of needs. The other vocational/technical schools are not the only alternatives.

We have a host of educational options available in the Boston area — from union apprenticeship programs, to community colleges, to dedicated vocational academies, to university extension schools and back, of course, to our local schools themselves. Boston is extraordinarily rich in educational options.

The wealth of diverse alternatives to Minuteman fundamentally limits the state’s ability to “fix” the inequity in the Minuteman funding arrangement. Minuteman has become so expensive that if the state raises non-member fees to the point that they are covering their fair share, it is very likely to backfire and lead sending districts to channel their students elsewhere. It would create a high cost umbrella under which local districts would develop their own programs and/or form new partnerships with other educational institutions in the Greater Boston area.

The wealth of diverse alternatives to Minuteman is also what gives me conviction that Belmont should vote against this proposal and withdraw from the district. Belmont should not be afraid that it will end up excluded from Minuteman. Even in the unlikely scenario in which Minuteman fills up to the point that it turns away some non-member applicants, Belmont students will have plenty of decent options. That is not a plan — the prospect of that situation is too far away to plan specifically — but it is a judgment call that I feel comfortable making. I also believe that, in the even less likely scenario that the Minuteman district collapses, participating communities will recover just fine.

Other communities and their leaders may have a different balance of perceptions, due to their proximity to the school, their deep relationship with it, the number of kids they send or their wealth. Belmont spends considerably below the state average per pupil because of its limited commercial tax base and economically diverse taxpayers. It has to be hard-nosed about its options so as best to meet the needs of its children. I do not feel that Belmont should embrace, or has any neighborly obligation to embrace, a model which, in my judgment, is deeply flawed.

 

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

162 replies on “The Minuteman Referendum”

  1. Here’s another comment that will begin with “full disclosure”: I am Concord’s representative to the Minuteman District, currently serving as its Vice Chair and Chair of its Finance Subcommittee.

    When I first accepted appointment to the District’s School Committee, work of the Building Committee had begun, but had stalled, due in part to perceived inequities between who would benefit and who would pay for whatever project the Building Committee ultimately chose to pursue. The various Town Managers had already come together to attempt a reworking of the assessment formula, but the root of the matter extended more deeply into the District’s very structure and governance model. It is from that perspective that I find the dialogue stimulated by your statement to be most interesting.

    As we started to assemble and charge what became the Regional Agreement Amendment Subcommittee (RAAS), complete restructuring was suggested—perhaps something that incorporated features of a Charter and/or Innovation School. Intriguing, but practical? Where was the political will for something so groundbreaking? And how long would that take? We were pushing the limits on building conditions already, and initial comment from those in a position to know more than we was not encouraging. Be prepared for a strong push back, we were advised, if not from DESE directly, then from every Massachusetts school district that struggles to balance state-imposed standards with available financial resources.

    Even when the RAAS was assembled (I was Chair), dissolution and reassembly of the Minuteman District was considered an option. That too was quickly mired in thinking about how District assets and liabilities could possibly be redistributed among remaining, departing, and potential new members.

    Although we were successful in pushing DESE around the edges and ultimately achieved approval for a revised Agreement, the RAAS focused on what could be accomplished within applicable law and regulation. Please note, here, the updated DESE regulation that will allow a capital fee associated with this project to be charged to the sending community of out-of-district students. That in itself was no small accomplishment!

    And even all of that would have been too late, had MSBA not exercised a good deal of patience as we moved through that long process of compromise! It illustrates, I think, how strongly MSBA Board members recognize the need and actively support this project.

    So, Will (may I call you Will?), all these years later, the Minuteman Region is where it is, with the best it was reasonably able to achieve in terms of structure, governance, and finance. While its educational program continues to improve, its building continues to deteriorate and the clock is ticking.

    Belmont residents have every right to cast their individual votes relative to the building project based on their particular view of the situation. And Belmont’s Town Meeting may move toward the exit, if it comes to that, but the Minuteman District must move forward. In my own view, and that of many others, there is no other responsible choice.

    Thanks for reading,
    Carrie Flood

  2. Will,

    I share Matt L.’s thoughts entirely. A few more:

    * You neglect to mention that if Belmont leaves the district it loses it’s seat at the table: no curriculum control, no leadership control, and no guaranteed seats in enrollment in a new school that is downsized 40% from the current size.

    * The state has created a free rider problem. You are advocating that Belmont take advantage of that inequity and should pay less than its fair share. In the comment thread you apologize for being un-neighborly, but that apology is insufficient. I like to think that if the positions were reversed, I would be advocating that Arlington does the “right thing” and not try to take advantage of state-created iniquities.

    * In your mind, what does it mean for towns to “put their foot down”? This is more than a rhetorical question. Should we close Minuteman and stop providing vocational education, with their students sitting on the waiting lists of schools that are much farther away? Is that fair to the students? Is that strategy even possible? I don’t think that DESE will ever let us close the school, and we’re going to be paying top-dollar for a sub-par facility for the decade or more it will take DESE and the legislature to maybe come up with an alternative. I repeat the question: what does it mean for towns to “put their foot down”?

    * I’m glad that you’re willing to help with a “rethinking” but my extensive experience says that is not a practical or pragmatic option. When and how would such a rethinking that happen? In what forum? My involvement with Minuteman fairness issues goes back to 2006, and others have been working on them far longer. I’ve talked to MASB, DESE, my state legislators, the state treasurer, the list goes on and on. This is the best solution we’ve come up with.

    Building this school isn’t the best choice for any of the individual towns in the district. But, it is the best compromise available to the district as a whole. Regionalization requires this type of compromise.

    I have candidly and kindly told Belmont’s leaders during this process that part of what they need to do is propose alternatives. You need to do the same thing.

    Dan Dunn
    Selectman, Arlington

      1. I believe you have dodged the question. When I ask what is the alternative, I mean “What should the 10 remaining members of Minuteman do?” We can’t close the school – the state won’t let us. We can’t build a smaller school – MSBA won’t fund it, and the self-funded school we could afford is too small to support more than a handful of programs. The current proposal is close to the minimum of on the cost/benefit curve.

        Without an alternative, we end up doing nothing. The repair costs on an over-sized 40-year old building will keep growing, the quality of education will keep going down, and there will be no relief from the state. It will have all of the negatives that you cite in your post, and no motivation on Beacon Hill to resolve them.

        Your proposed alternative, that Belmont withdraw, is not a scaleable solution. We can’t all just leave and close the school. This is where the questions of community and regionalization and being a good neighbor. We can’t all get exactly what we want. We need to regionalize, and that means we all need to compromise.

          1. I agree with Dan, either you’re still ducking the question or your reply just doesn’t make sense. You say “each community will assess the diverse needs of their kids and determine how to meet them.”

            Now if you really believe that the Minuteman model is broken and the cost structure is unsustainable, a rational response would be for Belmont to withdraw from the district and create its own local vocational technical education program within the Belmont school system, if you think this can be done with ab better model and/or at lower cost. Belmont could try to be the exemplar of a better way to provide vic-tech education. Then other towns would similarly decide whether to remain with Minuteman or set up their own programs.

            But that’s NOT what you are suggesting. You’re suggesting instead that Belmont leave the district as far as funding a rebuild of Minuteman is concerned, but continue to send students there at the lower out-of-district cost. Forgive me for being so blunt, but that sounds more than a little hypocritical.

    1. Selectman Dunn,

      You raise some good points, but you also make a couple of puzzling claims:

      Downsized 40%–where in the world do you get that figure from? The capacity of the proposed MM will be about the same as the current MM.

      What makes you assume that there will be a need for an “alternative” to MM? Why do you think that Belmont’s vote will outweigh the other 15 towns voting on the new school proposal and sink it? Why single out Belmont? There will actually be six towns voting on this that are already off the hook, as they will be exiting the district as of July 1, 2016. Hard to see why they would vote against the other ten towns’ taking on the debt….

  3. The comments by everyone contain important kernels of truth as well as mis-information, some focus on the $$$$ issues that range all over, some are emotional (if we don’t vote yes, then the sky will fall).

    Underlying all of your comments is a deep-seated unhappiness with process and lack of transparency that has lead to a lack of full faith in how this program has been presented and managed by the superintendent. “We may not like this plan, but perhaps it is better than band-aiding the current school.” That position is not good enough for our MM students.

    For members of Belmont Town Meeting, the devil has always been in the $$$$ details.

    And over the past four years, we (as well as other member communities) have NOT been provided with financials that make sense on the day-to-day running of MM. This despite repeated requests by our representatives to MM. If we do not trust annual reports (forget about quarterly reports) that describe the real cost to run the current MM, how can we trust how the $$$$$ will be spent to build a new edifice? And what if there are cost-overruns? And what if the bids received are greater than anticipated?

    A majority of Belmont Town meeting, based on our votes, has an opinion that the the current administration’s attitude has not lent itself to having a respectful and trusting opinion of the current superintendent. It is disrespectful and disingenuous to be told to TRUST US with the financials we present you.

    Lastly, contrary to some people’s thinking, Belmont is NOT the thoroughly wealthy community that some presume. Belmont Hill is a very small sliver of the Belmont residency. Most of the town’s homes are small single family, many are 2 and 3 family residences. We lack a large commercial base to off-set the taxes required to run our town. Families are drawn to Belmont because of the excellent schools, recreation and community-wide programs. Our schools are bursting at the seams and our teachers provide extraordinary opportunities for learning.

    It is vital for everyone to read the fine print of this compact/contract as our representatives have and have presented at several Town Meetings. We do not take this vote lightly; we have examined all the parameters and have voted that this project is not in the best interests of the entire Belmont community.

    Thank you.

  4. Support for career readiness education and support for Belmont to stay in the Minuteman district should be separate issues. Yes, Belmont should do more to support career readiness education programs. Belmont High School operates with very tight resources and the school lost breadth of program many years ago, including programs that focused on technical skills. There are many Belmont students who are less well served by a narrow high school curriculum that is restricted to what are considered the most essential academic offerings. Belmont should vote against the building project because it is so financially disadvantageous to Belmont. Belmont should continue to send students to Minuteman, just like Watertown does, as a non-member town. Belmont should grapple with how better to fund career readiness for students and to restore this type of programming in town. This is the perfect time to advocate for increased local funding and to make sure that the new high school building is designed with space to house a broad array of curriculum offerings needed for 21st century learning. Belmont can and should support and pay for career readiness education for its students. I hope the Minuteman HS building is successful – I hope there are enough towns who can finance the project. A new school would be an asset to the greater Boston community, and Belmont should support the school as a non-member community (capital assessment and all). But Belmont shouldn’t continue in the district because it has been financially disadvantageous for the town for decades.

  5. Neighbors,
    Let’s face it. This is about the money. It’s always been about “being on the hook” for this building and tuition. While the out of district tuition schedule needs to be addressed, that should not be the backdrop of this vote. This is about Belmont’s ability to help finance a much needed facility. That ability is not in question.
    Public education in Belmont is rightfully expensive. It’s expensive to be among the top school systems in the country. There’s a cost. Our town buildings have suffered as a result of that commitment. We’ve been kicking the can down the road for some time with many of our town’s public facilities. Minuteman has suffered from this same sort of short sightedness. It’s time to step up.
    Minuteman is a valuable asset to our town, affording exciting opportunities to all students. Quite a few Minuteman graduates proudly serve our town within the police and fire departments. They’re the thousands of electricians, carpenters, plumbers, designers and landscapers in and around our homes. They’re the chefs at our brunches and the bakers of our pastries. Minuteman has been teaching service and character, hard work and achievement since the late seventies. Now it’s breaking new ground in emergency medicine, robotics and biotechnology. These are sought after, fascinating and well paying careers that help our communities grow.
    Friends, our town and all the towns that Minuteman serves benefit 10 fold from a relatively small investment in this facility. Please don’t let this opportunity for state funding assistance slip away.
    Senator Brownsberger said this is probably the only school project he would not vote for. It’s an unfortunate but telling position. A no vote on this question is turning your back on a segment of students who, otherwise, simply wouldn’t be afforded these same opportunities. He states above, “In particular, vocational education, as an alternative path into the work force, is something we should be trying to create more of.” The only logical conclusion is a yes vote.

  6. Minuteman provides an excellent education for students that are not fit for the high stress academic environment at BHS. For my son who attended MM it was either MM or some specialized high school at $60-$100k per year. Looking at that comparison, $30k for MM seems like a bargain.

    With DESE agreeing to the capital fee, the difference between in-district and out-of-district tuition will shrink dramatically. By withdrawing we are not only giving up the control and influence over MM direction and management, but also risk the future ability for our Belmont kids to get a good hands-on education. I believe that the school will be filled to the brim once it has been renovated, with the member towns being eager to promote their own kids to get in first and member towns having severe resentment towards Belmont and possibly rejected Belmont to rejoin the district. It is only three years that we have the guaranteed seats, then it is totally unclear where we can send the students.

    Anyone thinking we can provide a similarly excellent vocational education at a new high school for lower costs is just naive. It will be either much less options and quality or it will be much more expensive because costs have to be shared over less students.

    I do believe that MM could be managed better and that member towns need to take a more active role in overseeing its leadership and direction. The unsatisfying analysis and presentation of the new building project and lack of properly explored alternatives clearly left a lot to be desired. However, this does not remove the need for the MM school and a place for our students to study. Only by staying in the district we can tackle the issues of unfair tuition and ensure a good future direction.

    I will vote YES and I urge everyone else to do so to ensure that we retain this fantastic option for our Belmont kids that are not Harvard law school bound.

    1. Thanks, Martin.

      I do not doubt that your son has had a good experience.

      One thing that is important and misleading in your statement. You say:

      With DESE agreeing to the capital fee, the difference between in-district and out-of-district tuition will shrink dramatically.

      The capital cost will also be paid by member districts, so at best, the capital fee on non-member districts will allow the existing difference to remain the same. It is also possible that even with the capital fee the difference will go up. DESE has plenary authority to set the fee and may choose to set it below the average debt service levels, so as not to push non-member costs too high and drive them out of the school.

      1. Hi Will:
        You are right on the capital fees being charged to both member and non-member towns. However, it just seems crazy to me that non-member towns should get away with paying so much less than member towns and we need to do everything to eliminate that difference. If anything, non-member towns should pay more, since they do not take on any capital risks. Can you please help on the state level to work towards that goal.

        And we also need to work on Minuteman’s operating costs. It seems crazy that MM is so much more expensive than other vocational schools. There needs to be more fiscal oversight over the administration.

  7. I know many may not believe it, but most of us support vocational education, as do I. But not at any cost, and the current proposal is not right-sized.

    In an ideal world we would consider the merits on their own, without other context. But unfortunately we cannot, and the fact is that Belmont as a town will have to go to it’s tax payers to fund a new high school, for ALL of it’s students. We have to make hard choices, and a wrong-sized proposal that’s continuing to propagate a bad situation just has to be second.

  8. Will, Thank you for describing this matter clearly with helpful information, and thank you for standing up for the decision that best serves the town of Belmont.

    BTW, You are not being hypocritical. People who want to feel good about themselves by forcing other people to spend money are the real hypocrites, no matter how good they feel about themselves.

    I urge everyone else to vote “NO” to disapprove the referendum and withdraw from the district because:

    1. Fiscal Responsibility. With all the challenges at present and coming soon to Belmont, we need to get the priority right and address the issues with highest impact to Belmont with the limited money at hand.

    2. MM is not being true to vocational training. Based on its offering and graduate placement, half (or maybe more) of its students should go to regular high school – that means BHS for Belmont students!

    1. To quote the person who posted 2 comments before yours, “Minuteman provides an excellent education for students that are not fit for the high stress academic environment at BHS. For my son who attended MM it was either MM or some specialized high school at $60-$100k per year. Looking at that comparison, $30k for MM seems like a bargain.” And other posters have said very similar things. Even if minuteman is no longer solely a “Vocational School” in the traditional sense, it is an alternative public high school that is **succeeding at reaching many students who would survive in Belmont High, or other typical local academic high schools. One great thing at Minuteman, is that most of the classes have much lower student-to-teacher ratios than the local academic high schools. And yes, $30,000/student/yr is expensive, and much higher than the cost for educating a “typical student” at BHS, but as the other poster said, it’sa a bargain compared to the $60k-100k/student/yr that it would cost to send these students to private schools. Now in some cases that additional cost would be born by their families, but what would happen to the students whose families can’t afford it? And please remember that a very high proportion of the students we send to MM are on IEP’s so that additional cost would have be born by the “sending districts” anyway. Not all non-vocational students belong in a “regular high school” e.g. BHS.

      1. I did read many comments (not all), which included the two you mentioned.

        As one commenter said, things rarely are judged on their own merits in real world. While I do see the benefit of MM to some families, compared to the challenge we are facing with BHS and all Belmont public schools in general, I’d take the public schools as a priority any day.

        I am sorry but the fact is that the town of Belmont does not have the money to do everything, so you have to pick and choose.

        I encourage every town resident and tax payer to understand the situation and make their choice.

  9. The Minuteman model is a challenge due to the lack of leadership from the state, including Mr. Brownsberger who has been AWOL on this issue since we started down the path in 2010. Whether you support or oppose this project, you should be unhappy with Mr. Brownsberger’s apathy toward this issue. Words and actions are completely different on this matter.

    The Minuteman building project is not a new issue. Minuteman has been engaged in the longest feasibility study in state history, 6+ year and has been working hard on governance reform to make its members happy. While going through this process they have received zero support from many Beacon Hill legislators, including Will Brownsberger.

    Here’s the question Will should answer: over the last 6 years that Minuteman has been in a feasibility study and governance review, what specifically if anything did he do as a Representative or Senator to help the process?

    At the same time, I think it would be helpful to knock off the political spin:

    Comparing Belmont’s K-12 per pupil spending to Minuteman’s 9-12 vocational education spending is absurd. Everyone knows vocational education spending is more than traditional education, and 9-12 spending is more than K-8. Add on top of that how Minuteman has almost 50% of its students on IEP’s, while I would expect Belmont to be under 20%, and it highlights again why the comparison is silly. You can make an argument that Minuteman is an expensive school but use the right comparison versus lazy political spin.

    The difference in member and non-member tuition is driven by state rules. So think about this – Mr. Brownsberger saw a problem, did nothing to fix it, then criticized Minuteman for not doing better with the poor hand they were dealt. Really????

    Yes, 40.5% of the students are from non-member communities, but that’s again a state failure because the state allows a town like Watertown to not provide in-district vocation education while also not required to be part of a vocational education district. The state also allows a community like Waltham to provide a partial and frankly lacking number of vocational education options, then use Minuteman as a limited non-member town for limited offering.

    Minuteman is being built for 628 students because the state said that it would not support a building below 600.

    The operating theory that Belmont can vote “no”, withdraw from the district and come back as a non-member (or go elsewhere) is incorrect, which is why Attorney Brownsberger, is not offering a specific alternative. Belmont can only leave the district through the process outlined in Section IX of the Regional Agreement. The Town of Arlington has already made it clear to Mr. Brownsberger, Libeson, Paolillo, et al that it will move to block Belmont from leaving, creating a crisis for Belmont. The Regional Agreement prevents Belmont from creating competing voc ed programs in-house, Belmont can’t use the Minuteman building if it doesn’t pay for it, and Belmont cannot go to a different vocational education district under the Regional Agreement. Does this mean that Belmont children are now banned from vocation education, or does it many years of expensive litigation?

    http://minuteman.org/cms/lib8/MA01907667/Centricity/Domain/12/6a.%20DESE%20%20Approval%20MM%20RA%20%203.11.16.pdf

    Again, let me make this clear – whether you support this building project or oppose this building project, you should be concerned over the lack of effort from your legislators in the district, including Mr. Brownsberger.

    Dean Carman
    Belmont High Class of 1995
    Member, Arlington Finance Committee

    1. Thanks, Dean. I understand your frustration. I know you’ve worked hard on this, although I don’t think you and I have spoken about it.

      It is, in fact, an issue that I’ve had continuing discussions with my colleagues about.

      The problem is no easier to solve legislatively than it is at the community level — the fundamental political and economic dynamics are the same.

      As long as people keeping going along with Minuteman’s plans, the problem will remain difficult to solve.

      One point that you make is quite right — Belmont will not automatically be allowed to withdraw from the district if it votes no. But, it will be relieved of buying into the new school debt.

      You are also quite right that the legislature has been unable to help.

      We can agree to disagree about the numbers, but one thing I think does need correction in your comment is the notion that somehow, Belmont students will be barred by the agreement from getting a vocational education if it votes no. That’s just not in the agreement — there is no such Catch-22.

      1. For the future record, what Will disagrees with me on is MGL Chapter 17, Section 16(d), see below.

        I’m definetly not ther lawyer but I don’t see how a “no” vote in Belmont does not put a de facto restriction on their access to Minuteman, assuming Belmont’s vote to withdraw is disapproved by the membership or commissioner.

        “The member towns of such vocational regional school district which have voted disapproval of the new indebtedness shall have the right to retain their membership in the school district as provided in their district agreement except that they shall not be allowed any added enrollment that might result solely from the expansion of facilities that occurs on account of said new indebtedness.”

    2. Mr. Carman,

      So much of what you have said seems to be factually incorrect. Most important, your comment about whether Belmont can withdraw from the district is bizarre. According the same Section IX of the Regional Agreement that you allude to, it is clearly stated that a two-thirds vote of the Belmont TM will initiate the process of withdrawal from the district. There is absolutely no mechanism by which Arlington could “block” Belmont’s withdrawal, so what you say is absolute nonsense.

      1. The agreement also says that a majority of the other member communities must approve the withdrawal. So though Arlington alone could not block it, it is not a unilateral choice for Belmont.

        1. Dan, eight member towns would have to convene special town meetings within 60 days of learning of our vote to leave. That’s a pretty heavy lift to begin with. And what incentive would those towns have to block Belmont’s withdrawal? Six of the fifteen are already leaving. Then, perversely, if they vote to block, Belmont doesn’t have to pay ANY of the capital costs! The only scenario in which that would be the case.

  10. Dan Dunn and Dean Carman,

    Thank you for contributing to the discussion here and make clear your stand on this issue – REPRESENTING ARLINGTON LEADERSHIP ON BEHALF OF ARLINGTON.

    Now Belmont residents, please spend some time to understand this issue and make the best choice for Belmont!

  11. Thanks for posting the letter from the Commissioner of DESE here. You say that “Non-member districts who don’t have vocational programs of their own will pay the same amount as member districts.” That would be what Belmont would be looking at. So can you help explain the numbers, please. Does that mean that Belmont’s costs will be the same if we continue to send the same number of kids each year, whether we are a member district or a non-member district?

    1. No, and thank you for asking — there is a lot of confusion about this. Here are some rough numbers based on what the Commissioner announced yesterday.

      For member districts, if the ballot question is approved, the per student assessment will rise from roughly $30,000 to roughly $39,000. The capital costs of roughly $9,000 per student will be added to the existing base.

      In parallel, for non-member districts, the per student assessment will rise from roughly $20,000 (including special ed and transportation costs) to roughly $29,000. If Belmont does some vocational programming of its own, then it could pay a somewhat lower capital fee for students it sends to Minuteman and have somewhat lower total costs — roughly $27,000 per student.

      These are round numbers which will be influenced by a number of variables, but the capital fee will not reduce the current difference between members and non-members. It will actually increase the difference as to those non-member districts that have their own vocational programs.

  12. Fifty percent (50%)of the Minuteman students are on IEPs. They have learning disabilities. Yet 65% of Minuteman grads go onto college. They are getting children with learning disabilities to go onto college.

    Belmont is known for its high quality schools and Minuteman is known for its high quality Vocational and Technical curriculum. Yes, it’s not just a traditional voc/tech. It also offers programs in in marine science, robotics, etc. That’s a bad thing?

    Many children just “learn differently” and the competitive environment at Belmont High School may not be the right place for them.

    Don’t we want to give our special education children the opportunity to learn a trade and also have the option to go to college? Minuteman is an excellent, cheap option for SPED children and a good option for children who just learn differently. It gives them valuable skills and career opportunities.
    I don’t think Minuteman is broken I think it’s a great educational model.

    1. Thanks for this post Kathy. I couldn’t agree more. These students get an education and supports that are simply not available elsewhere. This is not just about alternative options for vocational education. It’s about supporting students with special needs, fewer family assets and more challenges a chance to enter the mainstream and have a future. We shoouldn’t turn our backs on them.

  13. Where does A(dult) B(asic) E(ducation) fit into all of this– if it does?
    What about the students who dropped out along the way and are/may be looking for their GED and/or job training programs elsewhere?
    Thanks for all your good work and honest communication.

  14. I’m with you, Senator. Your balanced analysis focuses elegantly on choice. At every stage of education, students should own their responsibility to consider all options, their obligations and potential ramifications. Out with the victim cloak and on with owning their lives. Many thanks.

  15. Hi Will,
    Thank you for your analysis of the Minute Man vote and the complexities that surround it.

    It has always been something that I never understood, but your thoughtful insights have helped me to be able to vote ‘no’ with confidence.

    Ellen Solari

  16. The key sentence in your letter states that Belmont spends considerably below the state average per pupil because of its limited commercial tax base and economically diverse taxpayers.

    These two facts contort Belmont’s major problems, not just the decision to withdraw from the Minuteman coalition. They are the cause of the Cushing Square Development fiasco, which the Selectman are praying won’t be derailed after 7 years. The embarrassing state of the Belmont Library, the destruction of the historic Clark House, the poor condition of the roads, etc.

    Belmont can no longer afford to be just “the town of homes”. Unless we merge with a town that has a strong commercial tax base, such as Watertown or Arlington, we will go from crisis to crisis.

    1. I happen to agree with you that Belmont should be more welcoming of development — not in its open space, but in the town centers and along the Belmont/Trapelo corridor, for a whole host of reasons.

      But merger is an amazingly difficult task — both towns would have to really want to do it. And, BTW, Arlington has roughly the same residential/commercial mix as Belmont.

      1. Why do we need a Belmont library when the Watertown library is so much better?

        Why do we need enormously expensive hook and ladder fire trucks that might be used a half-dozen times a year, when we could lease them from another town, such as Arlington?

        In short, why doesn’t Belmont exploit obvious economies of scale, instead of duplicating expensive equipment, building, and capital costs that we could share with other towns? Why is there so much distrust and unwillingness to cooperate with them?

  17. From what I have gathered, Minuteman governance is seriously broken. Six towns have voted to withdraw from the region. The simple fact that the capital plan is at risk this late in the process speaks to leadership failure. The whole scheme: who funds, who votes, is byzantine. I will grudgingly support the capital plan. But regardless of the outcome, Minuteman governance needs an overhaul.

  18. Will, The DESE decision is a landmark that tips me in favor of Belmont approving the debt.

    I changed my mind on this vote because DESE finally did the right thing this past week and set a capital charge that is fair for the member towns. This answers nearly all of the criticisms of the building project. With the capital charge resolved, it is appropriate for Belmont to approve the debt for a new school and remain a member town.

    Many opponents of the debt argued through the spring and summer that the proposed new school is too large for the member towns and DESE could not be trusted to set a fair capital charge. This argument is no longer valid.

    Belmont will pay the same capital charge even if we became a non-member town. That is the outcome we asked for—an equal per-student amount for the cost of the new building for members and non-members (recognizing DESE made a small adjustment for non-member towns that already provide a significant level of voc/tech programs).

    Many of those opposed to the debt now seem to be making the vote a referendum on the tuition charged to non-member towns for operating expenses. By leaving the district, they say Belmont will save money even with the fair capital charge because the non-member towns pay lower tuition.

    The new regional agreement as discussed in Town Meeting allows a district to withdraw, subject to unanimous approval by the remaining members, to avoid the debt obligation. Tuition was not the reason for this provision.

    Non-member towns are a part of Minuteman. This not ideal but it reflects circumstances unique to this district. The practical difficulties in getting new towns to join as members may be solvable in the future.

    If Belmont pays less in tuition, the remaining member towns have to pay more. It is a zero sum game at that point and I do not support shifting costs to our neighbors in this way.

    The amount at stake is something we can afford. In a perfect world of equalized tuition, Belmont might save $150,000 when our total town budget is over $100 million.

    In addition, leaving the district is not automatic even if Town Meeting votes to withdraw. The remaining member towns also have to vote unanimous approval for Belmont’s exit. Reduced to a naked economic calculation, they have an incentive to deny a request to leave. A member of Arlington’s Finance Committee has already signaled in your blog that Belmont can expect opposition to an exit request. Withdrawal is probably not the windfall that some have intimated.

    There should be a thorough debate over tuition for non-member towns but it should not be used to avoid approving the debt. If Belmont withdraws, our economic incentive will be to free-ride on a flawed tuition policy. Instead, the right course is to remain in the district and help lead that debate. That debate should also include how to make sure Minuteman is run efficiently and controls its operating costs.

    Belmont won the big battle over the capital charge. This justifies approving the debt on Sept. 20.

    1. Fair enough, Roy. For those whose vote was all about the capital fee, I agree that this should make a difference.

      For me, it is not about the zero-sum “let’s pay less than our neighbors”. I agree that is not an attractive line of argument.

      For me, the issue has always been larger — I do feel that the Minuteman model is broken and I don’t think we should support it. I think that Belmont made a good faith effort to fix it pushing a right-sized school, but that approach just isn’t working out and now is the time to leave.

      While there has been some saber-rattling in some of the comments, it’s hard to predict what the other member towns together would actually do in response to a withdrawal request from Belmont. They are actually likely to feel that it is in their interest for Belmont to withdraw.

      Economically, for the member towns, after a NO vote, Belmont’s withdrawal would be roughly a wash economically. This is counterintuitive, but here is why: Under the member agreement if Belmont votes NO, and Belmont’s Town Meeting votes by the necessary 2/3 to withdraw, Belmont is not on the hook for the new debt service, even if it is not ultimately allowed to withdraw. The member agreement is 100% clear on that point — see Section IV(I).

      So Belmont, if forced to remain a member, would be in a unique category — paying member-level tuition, but not the debt service. The debt-service happens to be roughly equal to the member/non-member tuition differential, so Belmont would pay roughly the same in total as the non-member communities. And member communities may ask: If Belmont is off the hook for the debt, why should Belmont keep a seat on the board?

      Additionally, remember that the other 6 withdrawing towns are still voting members who would be part of the voting quorum on the decision. So, 8 of the 9 continuing members would actually have to convene Town Meetings and vote to keep Belmont in — those communities that do not do so within 60 days are construed to have approved Belmont’s withdrawal and it is hard to imagine any of the withdrawing communities voting to force Belmont in. See Section IX of the member agreement.

      1. The proposed school is right-sized because MSBA will not help pay for anything smaller. A significantly smaller school cannot offer the range of programming at a reasonable cost. If we are going to have a new building in the foreseeable future, it will be for 628 students.
        The choice seems to be to allow non-member towns on an equitable basis or postpone a new building for potentially many years before Watertown and other towns can be induced to become member towns. I don’t see the upside of waiting when the current building is in poor shape and requires large maintenance expenses, and we lose MSBA funding in this round.
        The building decision and the operating policies should be addressed separately. And if the new school is built (as seems likely) but Belmont withdraws, the practical effect will be free-riding on the flawed tuition policy.

  19. Will, I agree with you 100%. Tuition
    should be set up as it it for state
    schools with out of state students paying
    a premium. Nonmembers should pay a
    premium over the cost for members. I do
    feel that Minuteman is a very valuable
    resource for area students.

  20. Will,

    Here’s the problem with your alternatives “analysis”. You’ve pointed to a number of general options. But without specifics that we can provide our Belmont parents, you leave them with no real options. While in my view there are a number of things missing from the “Vote NO” analysis, it is this advocacy for a very messy divorce from an innovative and high quality vocational/technical program — without a concrete alternative plan — that I find most worrisome. Good governance requires that we put real alternatives in front of voters so that they can make informed decisions. I’m hoping that you will understand this as your leadership on issues affecting Belmont carries great weight.

    Best,

    Mike Crowley
    Belmont Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8

    1. Thanks, Mike.

      Your point is well taken — more clarity would be good to have. But this is about a long-term judgment call, not specific plans. I think we need to ask whether the model is right and whether we want to support it. If not, and that is where I come down, I think the very visible richness of educational options in our region should give us the comfort necessary in face of the uncertainty.

  21. Hi Will et al.

    I am not in either camp on this issue. There is one issue though that I disagree with Will on. The fact that almost half of the Minuteman students go on to college is not an argument against funding a new school. 1) The Minuteman population is radically different than Belmont HS; there is a much higher proportion of students with special needs and the curriculum is designed to accommodate this. A student who will be successful at Minuteman might not be successful at Belmont HS. 2) Half of the time the Minuteman students are receiving hands-on technical training, much higher than at Belmont HS. So whether or not you go on to college you can be much more employable in a technical job immediately after high school .graduation. If you decide to go on to college, all the better, has you will likely find a better paying job. 3) I think it is a good thing that Minuteman is expanding its offerings in response to changes in the job market. I don’t think this means that the traditional trades are being shortchanged. It gives its students more choices and opportunities.

  22. Is there a way to privatize MM? as a state run charter school? Or become a “campusless” school that would rent it’s space from the private sector.

  23. I’ve spent considerable time thinking about this in recent days and have been struggling to develop my own opinion, which I finally think I have come to. This whole discussion started with concerns about the Minuteman capital expenses and how they would be covered by member vs. non-member towns. DESE’s recent ruling has addressed that issue in a way that in my view, is reasonable. The other building-related issue was that the school was “too big”–i.e. aimed to accommodate about 600 students instead of the approximately 300 sent by member towns. I am not an expert, but my sense is that Belmont officials’ proposal for a much smaller school aimed to serve only member town students, is unreasonable. I believe that the smallest vocational high school in MA is currently around 500 students. I expect much smaller school would result in the need to greatly reduce the variety of program options, effectively gutting the schools’ purpose of providing students with a good, wide range of options. My (preliminary!) review of per-student costs as a function of size also suggests a negative relationship between those (i.e., larger school means lower per-student costs). However, that same relationship also shows how out-of-whack Minuteman’s operating expenses appear to be. They seem to be the highest of the vocational schools, and in my regression, based on school size, I think that a 624-student school as proposed, should cost closer to $22k/student instead of the current $28k/student. Maybe there are good reasons (higher cost of living? something else?), but I haven’t heard a clear explanation for that. Then, on top of that, for member towns, is the inequity with which operating expenses are divided. Some degree of inequity seems appropriate given the benefits member schools receive (priority for student acceptance, and a say in school management), but the extent of the inequity on top of the high operating costs makes for a significant financial problem. Absent some new revelation in the next couple of days, I plan on voting no.

    1. Alix, if the new building is not approved, operating expenses will be higher because the existing building is inefficient and requires a lot of repairs.

      If the new building is approved by the other towns and Belmont votes no, the School Department has indicated a preference to send Belmont students to the new school. As a non-member town we will have shifted costs onto the member towns, which I at least don’t support.

      How to manage MM’s operating costs in the future is an important but separate issue. If we wish to exit the district even with a fair capital charge (which is the implication of a no vote), we would become a non-member town with an incentive to perpetuate the current flawed tuition system. Wouldn’t a real improvement be to remain as a member and reform the tuition policy, and also have some ability to oversee MM’s cost structure?

      1. Roy – I appreciate your response. I agree that a new building is needed and I expect it will be approved tomorrow. I also agree that if Belmont leaves the district (or remains as a member that does not pay for the capital charge), it amounts to a cost shift to the remaining member towns, which is unfair, and which I don’t like. What I don’t see is how remaining would provide a plausible path forward to addressing the unfairness, or the high operating costs. It seems to me that the only potentially effective tool that member towns have, to push for such a change, is to leave the district. Non-member towns have no incentive to push for change, nor have they done so, as far as as I know. As the “Yes Responds to No” website states, “Belmont has spent six years fighting the practice of setting artificially low tuitions for non-members” (http://mmvote.info/yes-responds-to-no.html) and yet has made no progress on that score. Absent more drastic action on the part of member towns, such as choosing to leave, I don’t see why progress on the tuition equity issue would be likely.

        My hope is that Belmont leaving could be a step towards pushing for an overall solution, which I suspect the state may need to be involved in, but which seems unlikely absent a more whole-scale action on the part of member towns.

        As for remaining as a member to help oversee the cost structure better, that certainly has value, but with so many member towns and given the inability of the group thus far to do much about it, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for a significant change… at least, absent a shock to the system such as members deciding to leave, which may be incentivizing.

  24. Thank you for sharing the information with us.

    I tend to support your point of view on the vocational school. The school has not been operated efficiently and the building (which is much newer and in better shape when compared to Belmont High school) has not been properly maintained. And I don’t think that demolishing an existing building and throw in a new building can change that organizational problem.

    Belmont has a much more urgent school resource problems and property tax burden that we must solve that first. Belmont public schools are at a much larger financial/enrollment risk when compared to the Minuteman.

    We had extensive discussions in our Wechat groups of Belmont Chinese American community. There are voices from both sides. I think there is an overwhelming voice of dis-approval.

    We will try to mobilize our community to turn out and vote tomorrow.

    best regards,

  25. Dear Mr. Brownsberger,

    From your letter and other evidence, it seems that the Minuteman School is and will continue to be the flagship vocational school in Massachusetts and perhaps the nation. The new building would accommodate a computer lab and other facilities that will permit vocational students to obtain jobs in a dynamic, high-tech economy.

    Why should Belmontians cast a vote against a school that will inspire and be a model for the future of vocational education in our state and the country at large?

  26. Will,

    I too voted against the Minuteman referendum, despite living in Arlington (which sends more students to Minuteman than any other community), and because, along with Arlington’s other upcoming spending on schools (new high school, a middle school renovation, and one more elementary school renovation), it’s simply too expensive.

    For me, the gut-level, checkbook-level argument against the referendum is that I can’t afford the resulting tax increases: on top of annual 2.5% levy increases and periodic Prop. 2.5 overrides, there will now be additional debt service on multiple buildings. I (still) work for a living. If I can’t afford this, I shudder to think of those who are retired or otherwise on fixed or limited incomes.

    I read cogent, rational arguments against the referendum. As it is, tuition at Minuteman is far more expensive than at other vocational schools. The proposed building is too large and too expensive for too few students; as a result, some towns are already withdrawing.

    The differences in capital and operating costs for in-district vs. out-of-district students are more a financial issue than an educational one, but they too are compelling, especially given the large fraction of Minuteman students who come from outside the district. You yourself have suggested that Belmont withdraw in order to reduce the cost of its Minuteman students, an argument which, if some towns adopt it, would foist corresponding increases on member towns, and which, if all towns adopted it, would lead to financial ruin for Minuteman.

    I think that those arguments against were overwhelmed in these ways:

    1) By people sufficiently affluent enough to afford what I can’t (my income is below Arlington’s median income of $90,000). In much the same way, Arlington voted for the Community Preservation Act (nice to haves, but not necessities); I voted against it.

    2) By people concerned with providing equity for academic and vocational high school students, as in “If we’re going to build a new academic high school, we should be a new vocational high school too”.

    3) By people who simplistically believe that because education is inherently good (I agree), spending on education is inherently good (I disagree).

    4) By people who believe that because Minuteman is special in offering hi-tech programs for our growing hi-tech economy, and that it therefore should continue. Yes, Minuteman offers computer programming and biotech programs, and the latter of these two is exceptional. However, Minuteman is not the only vocational school to offer hi-tech programs. Minuteman also offers the standard, traditional vocational programs, e.g. carpentry, automobile repair, plumbing, metalworking, and cosmetology, and a large fraction of its students are in these programs.

    To sum up, I’m disappointed that popular sentiment overwhelmed rational argument. I’m concerned that I will not be able to continue to afford living in Arlington and may have to move elsewhere. And I’m concerned that we’ll replace a decrepit, under-enrolled school, with a modern, under-enrolled school.

    Aram Hollman
    Arlington

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