January 28, 2016: Belmont: A town full of ‘Laurie Grahams’

Belmont Citizen-Herald: January 28, 2016

There was sadness on the Belmont School Committee last week, as long-time member Laurie Graham attended her last meeting before her retirement from elected public office. In her eight years of service, three as Chair of the School Committee, Graham left her imprint not only on the public schools, but on the community as a whole.

I hope we all appreciate the amount of her inner-being that Graham has given to the Belmont community throughout the past decade. Graham helped lead the School Committee through some particularly tough times. The turn-over in school superintendents is never easy, yet Belmont had one superintendent who left earlier than he had committed to; replaced by an “interim” superintendent (who graciously agreed to stay an extra year to benefit the town); before landing Superintendent John Phelan who now leads our district.

Graham helped usher the town through the construction of a new elementary school, with young kids housed in temporary modules and sharing space at the high school; this, too, is never an easy task, for the kids, the parents, the teachers or the administrators.

Labor negotiations in Belmont always seem to be contentious, but have been even more difficult in an era of severely constrained financial resources. How do you address underpaid teachers when there is simply no more money in the budget?

The school committee was placed in the awkward situation where members had to insist on preserving already inadequate girls’ athletic fields from being used for non-school facility building construction, when no replacement land was promised or anywhere available.

All the while, spiraling enrollment was creating space problems; the high school physical plant continued to deteriorate; and the budget was increasingly squeezed by expenditures that were mandated by, but not financially supported by, state and federal law. Graham certainly didn’t devote eight years of her life to the schools because it was “fun.”

Despite the challenges, Graham’s good humor, good will, and good sense ensured that progress continued to be made. Clearly, challenges still remain. But the town is better off today because of her service.

The thing that is so special about Laurie Graham is that she isn’t special. She doesn’t have umpteen advanced degrees in education; she didn’t bring decades of professional experience to bear on how to manage school systems. Instead, she has succeeded because she’s been willing to step into the fray; she’s been willing to do the unheralded, often unappreciated, dirty work to understand issues and how they affect our community; and she’s been willing to suspend her own personal predispositions so she can hear the full story and find a basis for reasonable decisionmaking.

In so doing, Graham has made perhaps her greatest contribution to Belmont. She has demonstrated that we all have the capacity to make contributions to the broader community. The fact is that Belmont is full of “Laurie Grahams.” We as a community need to give people permission to step into the public arena, make their contributions, and exercise their best judgment, whether they be young or old; homeowner or renter; with kids in the schools or not; long-time resident or recent arrival.

I hope when folks next see Laurie Graham, whether on the street, or at the market, or at the post office, you take a moment to stop her and say “thank you.” However, even as we express our gratitude to Graham for her years of service, we should also look forward to embracing, as well as providing encouragement and support to, the next individual who will step forward to make their own unique contributions to helping our schools, our town, and our community.

January 14, 2016: Belmont Goes Solar: A Matter of Perspective

Belmont Citizen-Herald: January 14, 2016

Now, tell me truly. Did you think the dress was white and gold or was that dress blue and black? This difference in perception captured the imagination of the Internet in 2015.

The Belmont Goes Solar campaign now unfolding in town poses a similar question of perspective. Is the installation of solar panels on your roof best viewed as a way to prevent global climate change; is it best viewed as a way to earn a good return on your money; or is it best viewed as a way to minimize your long-term electricity bill?

In reality, the answer to that question should have little impact on whether you participate in Belmont Goes Solar. Any one of those answers presents a reason unto itself to avail yourself of the benefits of Belmont Goes Solar.

Let me fully disclose here. When the Board of Selectmen decided last fall that they wished to have a Belmont Goes Solar campaign in town, they asked the Town’s Energy Committee to organize it. As co-chair of the Energy Committee, I have also been chairing the group of volunteers that has organized Belmont Goes Solar and is promoting it. Having said that, let me tell you why I think that campaign is not only a good idea, but a great idea.

Ask yourself the following questions. Do you believe that, as the federal government imposes stricter clean air quality standards over the next 20 years, electricity will become cheaper or more expensive? If you respond “more expensive,” you should be interested in installing solar panels. The electricity produced by those panels is yours. That electricity will not be subject to any future price increases due to environmental clean-up costs. As electricity prices increase to pay for cleaner electricity, the electricity produced by your solar panels will be unaffected.

Are you earning 14% on your investments today? My wife and I surely are not. If you install solar panels today, taking advantage of state and federal tax credits, in addition to the time-limited price discount offered through Belmont Goes Solar, you will experience a payback of between six and seven years. The “payback period” is the number of years over which the savings generated by your panels exceeds the amount you spent on them; after that, it’s all profit. A seven year payback equals a 14% return on your investment. No other safe place exists today where you can earn that return.

Do you believe the earth’s climate is changing due to the pollution humankind dumps into the air? If you have noticed that the incidence of severe weather (think 2015 snow storms) has increased, or that the Western U.S. has been hammered with drought, or that the Arctic ice cap is melting, you should be interested in installing solar panels through Belmont Goes Solar.

The point is, however, that you need not believe in all of these. It’s a matter of perspective. Whether or not you believe in global climate change, Belmont Goes Solar will maximize your investment returns. Whether or not you have money tucked away in stocks and bonds, Belmont Goes Solar will help you make your own individual contribution to prevent catastrophic global climate change.

Belmont Goes Solar has its next “meet the installer” gathering at the Beech Street Center on the afternoon of Saturday, January 23, 2016. Whether you saw a white/gold dress or a blue/black dress, you should be there. Whether you want long-term financial security or want long-term security for the earth’s climate, you should be there. Whether you are fully committed to solar or merely curious, you should attend.

December 31, 2015: Belmont steps out in 2015

Belmont Citizen-Herald: December 31, 2015

Belmont was a town of steps in 2015. Steps forward; steps backward. Fast steps and slow steps. Steps through record snowfalls.

Exceptionally fast steps were seen at Belmont High this year, as the girl’s track team won its first conference championship in forty years. Led by Julia Cella and Megan Alper in the sprints, Samantha Kelts and Marley Williams in the triple jump, and Claudia Tenner and Kayla Magno in the hurdles, the Marauders didn’t just win, they dominated.

The track team was not the only group of high-steppin’ high schoolers. The annual BHS musical this spring featured dancing in Anything Goes that left theatre patrons abuzz. In addition to congratulating the students, however, let’s also take a moment to thank Jenny Lifson for a job well-done. She not only choreographed the show, but she then also taught the kids how to dance with the skill and energy that so captivated the audience.

A look at BHS theatre in 2015 would not be complete without acknowledging The Laramie Project. The play presented the true story of a small town coming to grips with the hate-induced violence leading to the brutal murder of a young gay man. The performance was powerful in a way atypical of high school theatre. Particular kudos go to Ezra Flam, director of the BHS Performing Arts Company, who brought the play to Belmont to challenge and stretch both his students and the community.

Not all decisions in Belmont this year were steps forward. The Board of Selectmen stepped backward on a proposed community path when it ignored hundreds of hours of research and deliberation by its own Advisory Committee and decided instead to include one path alternative in the engineering study that had been found to be neither safe nor practical. The real impact of the BOS decision to study a “community path” that traverses a lane on Concord Ave. is to slow down, and possibly derail, a project that the community as a whole both wants and needs.

One project that did move forward in 2015 was construction of the new Belmont Light substation. In the midst of a year of public turmoil over Belmont Light’s “net metering” solar policy, general manager Jim Palmer, along with former Selectman Ralph Jones, quietly made sure the substation moved toward completion. While not a glamorous initiative in any sense, the substation will both help ensure reliable electricity, and reduce electricity costs, to Belmont residents. Frequently, it is the nitty-gritty work, rather than those decisions most publicly debated, that have the greatest impact on the town’s residents.

Many considered last April’s over-ride approval a step forward for the schools. The added revenue, however, also meant that the budget for sidewalk repair increased by 1300% over prior years, thus making steps easier for Belmont residents throughout town. The Belmont Street/Trapelo Road construction ground toward completion, while the Cushing Village development remained a hole in the ground. Compromise was reached on green space in Belmont Center, even while the Center’s businesses continued to suffer due to the long-term construction.

May we never forget to thank those people doing the hard work to make some of Belmont’s annual events seem routine. Town Moderator Mike Widmer ushered Town Meeting through its annual decision-making. Jennifer Page and Sara Oaklander organized another successful “Meet Belmont” gathering. The Payson Park Music Festival again offered summer entertainment and delight. The Foundation for Belmont Education crowned a new spelling bee champion.

As we remember 2015, and wonder what 2016 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Happy holidays to all.