Child Confused Belmont Schools

As I’ve talked to people about the growth that’s flooding in around us, crowding in Belmont schools keeps coming up. Winston is still a couple years off from school, but with my curiosity aroused, I decided to take a look. Using data from the Department of Public Instruction’s scorecard data site, I was able to pull this table together:

SchoolInstructional CapacityEnrollment% Full
Belmont Central619726117%
Belmont Middle70769999%
Catawba Heights41133481%
JB Page Primary339345102%
North Belmont Elem.41137591%
South Point High1061101996%
All Belmont Schools3548349899%

The % Full column is just a measure of how large the enrollment at each school is relative to its instructional capacity, which (according to the Gazette) is the “number of available seats in regular classrooms within a school”. There is also some allowance for things like the gym, the band room, etc. The grand total line at the bottom adds up the total enrollment and capacity numbers across all schools in Belmont.

Using that as our gauge of how many students a school can reasonably teach, those numbers are pretty startling. You already have two schools (Belmont Central and JB Page) that are over 100% and another two that are within spitting distance of full capacity (Belmont Middle and South Point High). North Belmont and Catawba Heights have room for about another 100 students – which sounds like a lot until you consider that another project like the Morris development would completely overwhelm those schools.

For a 325-unit development like the Morris, if we use the Census average of 0.58 children (under 18) per household, that gives us 189 children in just that one development that then have to be absorbed by some combination of Page & Belmont Central, Belmont Middle, and South Point – all schools that are already at or near capacity. Fortunately, by the time some of the younger ones hit middle school, the new Belmont Middle should be up and running (with a new capacity of around 1000). So, for the three years they’re in middle school, they’ll be fine. It’s just the other 10 years of K-8 and 9-12 that might be a little rough.

Schools are just one example of the many long-term impacts that come with any development. There are many other side-effects to consider. This is why we need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how we approach growth. For a lot of these projects, you often only get one shot to get it right.

child slide crop

One of the bigger projects I have been involved with over the last few months is the new Parks and Recreation Master Plan (draft final version as of this writing). The last Belmont Parks master plan was updated in 2003 (!) and obviously quite a bit has changed since then. The consultant we hired conducted a lot of community meetings, surveys, staff interviews, etc. to get an idea of what we have, where we want to go, and how we can get there.

One of the most valuable aspects of the new master plan is where it benchmarks Belmont parks against a set of standards for peer cities and then projects our anticipated parks/recreation needs based on current growth projections (while also accounting for current deficiencies). So, for example, right now the greatest need for new park facilities is in North Belmont and South Point and, the plan calls for the addition of two Neighborhood Parks by 2029. Now that we know what we as a community need (as far as parks go), we can start planning around those needs, and if an opportunity for some new parkland presents itself we can take advantage of that. It sets expectations for residents as far as what the city will look like in 10 years while also setting some benchmarks to evaluate our city leaders against. So, in 10 years, if we don’t find a way to get those two parks – we can hold our city council members accountable.

I think this approach to governing is something that would benefit other areas of the city, not just Parks. Believe it or not, there is actually a Comprehensive Land Use Plan for Belmont that was just updated in 2018 and contains a plan for land use and growth for the city for the next 20 years. There are actually a lot of good ideas in the Land Use Plan. Unfortunately, those ideas aren’t worth very much if they aren’t effectively implemented. This, I believe, is part of where we’ve started to stray. Increasingly, we are reinterpreting the Land Use Plan to fit development projects when we should be reshaping these projects (and/or saying “No Thanks”) to fit the Land Use Plan.

What we need on city council are more people willing to stick up for what we, as a community, have collectively decided we want the city to look like. We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by showy PowerPoint presentations and pie-in-the-sky economic projections from people who don’t even live here. We have to be willing to fight for what makes Belmont special.