Candidates Night: controversies appear in town elections

The Brookline Neighborhood Alliance held a Candidate’s Night on Wednesday, April 16, from 6:30 to 9:30 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. It featured candidates for town-wide offices in the upcoming election on May 6. Margaret Bush, president of League of Women Voters of Brookline, presided as moderator.

The Alliance is a fairly recent organization, founded in 2001. It helps coordinate activities of more than 20 neighborhood associations in Brookline, many of them operating for 40 years or more. Current Alliance co-chairs are Dan Saltzman and Sean Lynn-Jones. Mr. Lynn-Jones introduced the candidates.

This year there is only one town-wide contest: four candidates running for two seats available on the Board of Selectmen. Incumbent Nancy Daly is running for re-election. Incumbent Richard Benka stepped aside after two terms; he remains co-chair of the Override Study Committee. The challengers are Brooks A. Ames of Whitney St., Arthur Wellington Conquest, III, of Tappan St. and Benjamin J. Franco of Cypress St.

Controversies
For more than two centuries, the Board of Selectmen was a gentlemen’s club, meeting at Dana’s and Punch Bowl taverns before there was Town Hall as we know it today. Over the past 55 years that changed. Louise Castle became the first woman to serve on the board in 1960. For many years afterward, there was never more than one woman among the five members. Recently–during 2007 through 2013–women formed a majority of the board, and currently there are two women on the board.

Another barrier has not yet been breached. There has never been an African-American or Latin-American member of the board, nor for at least a century has there been a foreign-born member. There has been only one minority head of a town department over the past 40 years. Those are major concerns for two of this year’s candidates. Mr. Ames and Mr. Conquest, an African-American, say they are campaigning jointly to promote minority representation in town management.

Continuing financial stress from growth in the school population has revived a controversy many thought was laid to rest in the 1970s: whether the town should continue its affirmative-action program in the schools, accepting minority students through the METCO program. A related element is school-age children of town employees who live elsewhere but have been allowed to attend Brookline schools. The combined groups are said by school administrators to number around 600, out of around 7,000 students now attending Brookline schools.

METCO was organized in 1965. An initial effort was led by Prof. Leon Trilling of M.I.T., then chairman of the Brookline School Committee. Key participants included Dr. Robert Sperber, then Brookline superintendent of schools, and the superintendents in Newton and Lexington. When METCO started sending students to seven founding communities in 1966–75 to Brookline–the program was described as filling “available seats” in classrooms. For many years, the added students were not considered a major factor in achieving a goal of 25 or fewer students per class, and the costs to Brookline were described by school administrators as small.

However, the Education Reform Act of 1993 led to a statewide reporting system for public school populations and spending, so that the added populations could not be discounted. Over time, the numbers of added students grew. State payments for METCO students and so-called “materials fees” charged for children of town employees are much less than the average cost per student in Brookline schools, as calculated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Moreover, state-certified costs do not include costs of school buildings.

The Ames and Conquest campaigns for minority representation, together with revival of disputes over the METCO program and new disputes over the “materials fee” program, comprise a level of agitation not seen in the town since struggles over rent control and high-rise zoning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those controversies formed a backdrop for the discussions at Candidates Night which no one there could ignore.

Board of Selectmen
Nancy Daly is seeking a fourth term on the Board of Selectmen. She named experience in town government as a major qualification. Ms. Daly formerly chaired the Advisory Committee. She cited recent efforts in getting Brookline recognized as an “age friendly community” and in proposing to revise the town’s bylaw on diversity and inclusion, Article 10 on the warrant for the annual town meeting in May.

Brooks Ames is seeking a first term on the Board of Selectmen. He has been a member of the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission since 2013. Mr. Ames described himself as a Heath School graduate and now a Heath School parent. He complained that there had been “no department head of color in over 40 years” and said his goal is “making sure that everyone has a seat at the table.”

Arthur Conquest is seeking a first term on the Board of Selectmen. He has been a Precinct 6 town meeting member since 1997 and is a past president of the High School parent-teacher organization. Mr. Conquest described his unsuccessful application to serve on the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission, clearly indicating he felt the current Board of Selectmen acted unreasonably.

Benjamin Franco is seeking a first term on the Board of Selectmen. He has been a member of the Advisory Committee since 2008. Mr. Franco described himself as growing up on Amory St. He said he is particularly concerned about financial pressures from school enrollment increases. He cited as a qualification his experience in state government, gained as a legislative aide in the state senate.

Ms. Bush, the moderator, posed several questions submitted by members of the audience to candidates for the Board of Selectmen. On the chronic issue of tax classification, with businesses seeking a lower tax rate, no candidate favored much change. On the efforts to get payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit organizations, all would encourage them.

Responding to a question about how to handle the proposed Chapter 40B housing development at Hancock Village, Mr. Ames cited his legal experiences with 40B developments and said he favors a “negotiated settlement.” All the candidates were familiar with the situation and cited potential problems, but none had any more to offer toward a solution.

A question on which the candidates clearly differed asked whether they “support a robust METCO program.” Mr. Ames said his support is “100 percent.” Mr. Conquest said METCO is “an integral part of our school system.” Ms. Daly said she would “fight strongly for the program” but there are limits “to what the taxpayers can pay.” Mr. Franco stated he could not “say that regardless of financial pressure…we’re going to retain it.”

Another question that drew differences asked about support for “Local First,” a business initiative proposed under Article 29 at the annual town meeting in May. Mr. Ames criticized the proposal for excluding franchised businesses. Mr. Conquest offered no opinion. Mr. Franco said Brookline “should make sure everybody is protected.” Ms. Daly said she saw problems, notably the issue of “what’s local?” The proposal seeks more town purchasing from local business, while Ms. Daly said the town is “subject to state bidding laws.”

School Committee
Three candidates are running for the three seats available on the School Committee. Incumbent Rebecca Stone is running for a fourth term. Incumbent committee chair Alan Morse stepped aside after three terms. Incumbent Amy Kershaw stepped aside after one term. The new candidates are Michael A. Glover of Franklin Ct. and Lisa R. Jackson of Winthrop Rd.

Rebecca Stone cited as accomplishments a strategic plan, improvements in “educational equity” and renovations to Heath and Runkle Schools. She voiced support for school-building recommendations from the Bspace Committee but also concerns about “fracturing the community” over costs of the work. Michael Glover, a real-estate lawyer who moved to Brookline from Jamaica Plain 1-1/2 years ago, described his goal to “retain the culture and characteristics that attracted our family, without compromising the quality of education.” Dr. Lisa Jackson, an investment portfolio manager, came to Brookline in recent years from California. Her aim, she said, is to “grow strengths around technology, science and math.”

By “educational equity,” Ms. Stone may have been alluding to the Equity Project that began about ten years ago, early in the Lupini administration. According to contemporary town reports, it aimed at “eliminating the racial achievement gap” in Brookline schools. However, an earlier “equity project” began in the 1960s during the Sperber administration. It aimed to eliminate disparity among what Dr. Sperber once called the four rich and the four poor elementary schools. A comment by Dr. Jackson suggested the older project has yet to meet some objectives. She mentioned finding many more classroom computers at Heath than at Pierce.

Ms. Bush again posed questions to the candidates. The first asked about their support for METCO: is it still necessary? Ms. Stone said she is a “very strong supporter” and said the program provides “extraordinary benefit to students and the community.” Mr. Glover said he is a “wholehearted supporter” and said a “holistic school requires exposure to different backgrounds.” Dr. Jackson said she offers “full and robust support” for METCO as an “integral part of an education.”

A question on which the candidates differed asked about the accuracy of school enrollment projections, which now predict continued growth for at least several more years. Dr. Jackson said she lacked knowledge about the accuracy of the projections. Mr. Glover said the projections were “conservative, maybe too low” and did not take full account of the proposed Hancock Village development. Ms. Stone did not answer the question directly, instead referring again to work of the Bspace Committee and describing it as a “broad set of recommendations.”

Key elements of the most recent projections for the school population appear in the public version of the proposed school budget for fiscal 2015, on pages 21-24. They estimate that by 2018 the total school population will rise at least 1,000 students above the historical norm for which Brookline’s school buildings were designed.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 17, 2014


2014 Annual Town Meeting Warrant, town meeting files, Town of Brookline, MA

Superintendent’s FY2015 preliminary budget, Public Schools of Brookline, MA, March, 2014

Edward W. Baker, The old Worcester Turnpike, Proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society at the annual meeting of January, 1907, Internet Archive

The Trilling plans for METCO, pp. 193-210 in Lily D. Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Grassroots Liberalism in Massachusetts, 1960-1990, PhD, U. Michigan 2010

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