After the past year of countless regular and special elections in which Belmont residents were running in contested races from President of the United States to Town Meeting representative, it would be expected that the "off year" election of 2013 would allow residents a bit of a respite to the seemingly endless rounds of campaign messages and lawn signs that bombarded the electorate in 2012.
And Monday's night annual Candidates' Night sponsored by the Belmont League of Women Voters held at the Chenery Middle School March 11 appeared to bear the assumption out as it was deemed the "quickest and quietest" candidates gathering according to one long-time observer.
Outside the auditorium, an equal number of residents seeking to represent their precincts at Town Meeting and voters mingled, happy to meet their neighbors and discuss the town budget and catch up on their kids.
Inside the hall, in a quaint tradition that New Englanders lovingly hold tight to (and those from other parts of the country find puzzling), the Town Meeting candidates lined up and proceeded to "present" themselves to the attendees and the cable audience watching on Belmont Media Center, giving their name, address and precinct.
For incumbents and new candidates in uncontested races, Monday was likely the only time they will be afford the opportunity to utter a few words before the electorate until Town Election which will be held for the first time in Belmont on the first Tuesday in April, April 2, as opposed to the first Monday which had been the traditional date.
In the only town-wide contested race voters will face, the traditional sharp elbows of competing candidates were never evident as the incumbent and two challengers spoke of their concerns in funding the schools so Belmont can maintain its reputation as one of the premier districts in the state.
The three candidates – current School Committee member Laurie Slap and Jamie Kang and Elyse Shuster – appeared at ease during the half hour they were on the Chenery stage.
Shuster said she and her husband were like so many young families in selecting to buy a house in a community with great schools which brought them to Belmont 17 years ago. then volunteering on PTOs and other groups.
With a good prospectus on where the schools have been and where they should go, Shuster would be a "team player" who is "open minded and will listen" on a wide array of ideas and themes with the skills to "mediate leading to compromises and creative solutions," which will be especially needed with budget gaps, a growing school population, the renovation of the High School and the search for a new School Superintendent.
The last time Kang had been on the Chenery's auditorium stage was when she was playing a violin as a student not that many years ago. The 2009 Belmont High School graduate who is a senior at MIT said that Belmont schools provided her an amazing education that involved academics, the arts, sports and social activities.
"Without Belmont, I would not be where I am today," said Kang.
Kang said she is motivated to run to "give back to the community" to help Belmont "sustain the best education any student can have." That will involve listening to student and teacher concerns and continuing those activities and classes that have been successful in the past while being watchful of budget limits.
Slap said she ran for the School Committee three years ago – which she topped a field of first-time candidates with the most votes – because she sought to help find solutions to the problems facing the district "and I have been working hard doing just that."
A Belmont resident for the past quarter century, Slap has been a member of numerous groups and committees including Town Meeting and joining those who successfully advocated passing a debt exclusion to build the new Wellington Elementary School.
"Maintaining quality schools is critical for our children and maintaining our property values," said the Sloan School MBA. "I believe we are at a critical juncture where we need to collaborate with the Board of Selectmen to develop a plan that will sustain us for the next five years," Slap said, which could include passing an override.
Each candidate was open to varying degrees to securing funds from private and non-profit sources to pay for enrichment and some capital projects in the school district.
With many schools, particularly the Wellington and Chenery, feeling the impact in class size of the sudden influx of children coming or returning to the school district in the past two years, Slap said the district and school committee must pay close attention to keep class size in the mid-"20s" as well as look at the quality of the teachers who are in those classes.
Shuster said the district must think "creatively" to keep class populations down "whether that means redistricting or freezing enrollments." Kang would attempt to keep class sizes low to continue allowing for "one-on-one" teacher/student interaction and to use new technology and secure funding for classroom assistants to provide that extra help.
Each of the candidates would continue to support the District's involvement with the regional METCO program that brings students from urban communities – mostly Boston – to the Belmont school district.
As for the biggest priority they see, Slap referred to the budget including the next fiscal year budget that has a significant gap in funding. She reiterated that the town and schools must work together to lay out expectations for the next several years rather than "lurching year to year from crisis to crisis."
Shuster said in addition to the budget will be selecting a superintendent – current Belmont Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston's contract ends on June 30, 2014 – and its important that we do that carefully because we want stability in this position" as it will impact how the budget process is resolved.
Along with the ongoing budget process, Kang said the district needs to developing technology that is interactive and also "listening to the students which is key" as is "increasing communications" with all interested groups.