The following Letter to the Editor was published in the Belmontonian on March 21, 2021.
When our children were very young and just learning how to manage conflict and complicated emotions, my wife and I used to say, “When you’re tired, be careful of your body and the people you love.”
We are all tired now. Bone tired. Pandemic life is strange and unnatural. After a year of isolation, little things like going to the grocery store or the park can feel stressful. Many of us are working from home and, at the same time, trying to make sure our kids continue to be educated and socialized in the ways that they can these days.
From last March to today, the School Committee and the Belmont Public Schools administration have not been up to the task of managing our growing, diverse, and under-resourced school system through the COVID crisis. Teachers have worked hard to learn new skills and to support students in new and creative ways, but the teachers’ union has run circles around the BSC and BPS leadership in negotiations, ensuring that even basic improvements to students’ opportunities to learn take forever to implement or never happen without state intervention. As a consequence, reeling from the chaos of the last year, families have formed insular factions that quarrel with one another online while others have lost hope that their kids can get even a semblance of a decent education this year and have become disengaged from the conversation about our public schools. Many families have left the Belmont Public Schools altogether.
And that’s just the schools. After 11 years, my street still looks like the surface of the moon and recently installed sidewalks are in need of repair. We can’t seem to make simple municipal decisions like how to replace an aging fuel tank or how to collect trash from our parks without a resurgence of rats.
Then there’s the fiscal management of the town where it has seemed for a decade that no one has been able to develop a viable plan to permanently and comprehensively deal with the structural deficit we have inherited from previous generations by consolidating services and creating new and sustainable revenue streams that rely less heavily on residential taxes.
It’s exhausting. All of it.
This is the environment in which we are being asked to consider financial decisions with real consequences. After a year when so little has been in our control and after so many ineffective meetings, committees, communications, and decisions, it’s tempting to focus all of your tired rage on whatever decisions are directly in your hands.
Here’s where we need to be extra careful of our “body” and “the ones we love.” In this case, our body is the civic culture of our town and the way we relate to one another as neighbors. The ones we love in this analogy are the teachers and students in the Belmont Public Schools, our seniors, and other members of our community who rely on town services.
The underfunding of our schools and our other town departments doesn’t explain away poor management, process, and communication, but it does make it more difficult for challenges to be identified and resolved effectively and efficiently. The low levels of staffing at the Chenery, for example, made it much more difficult for Principal Koza and her team to offer more synchronous learning time during the hybrid phase. I learned recently that the electrical system of our library, unlike Watertown’s which has been open for weeks, can’t handle running air purifiers so that we can enjoy our library safely.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I can support the override on April 6 without signaling that I am satisfied with the performance of our town’s leaders. I am not satisfied. I am angry and exhausted. There needs to be real accountability and real reform, especially in our school system, the School Committee, and the way that we plan for the future financially. Through our votes for School Committee, Town Meeting, and Select Board and our engagement with our elected officials, we can express our righteous anger, insist on better local government, and fund services that are essential to our quality of life without hurting the ones we love the most.