Annual town meeting: budgets and a larger Driscoll school

Brookline’s 2014 annual town meeting held its first session Tuesday, May 27. More sessions are scheduled for Thursday, May 29, and Monday, June 2. The agenda is not that long: 33 articles. However the moderator, Edward “Sandy” Gadsby, said he expected extended reviews of several issues–probably needing a fourth session, to be scheduled on Monday.

The session addressed the first 9 articles, including the entire budget for fiscal year 2015, starting in July. Unlike some odd procedures used several years ago, articles were considered in the order listed in the warrant report. A summary of actions, by article:

1, Wood and bark measurers (traditional)–approved
2. Collective bargaining agreements–no action needed
3. Compensating balance agreements–approved
4. Closing out special appropriations–no action needed
5. Unpaid bills of prior years–no action needed
6. Adopting local option, property tax exemptions–approved
7. Fiscal 2014 budget amendments, Lawrence School funds–approved
8. Fiscal 2015 appropriations–approved with an amendment for Driscoll School
9. Adopting local option, senior property tax deferral–amended and approved

An effort to enlarge Lawrence School using modular classrooms had gone nowhere. The sole bidder’s price was in the range for conventional classrooms. Under Article 7, the town meeting agreed to an extra $1.5 million for more durable construction. Four added classrooms are expected to be available in the fall of 2015. Students will not need to be relocated during this round of construction.

Debate over a feasibility study for expanding and renovating Driscoll School took about an hour. It was just one section of around a hundred in the budget under Article 8, yet controversial after parents of Driscoll students became agitated over building a larger school. Driscoll, Heath, Lincoln and Runkle each have about 500 to 550 students, while Devotion, Pierce, Baker and Lawrence each have about 650 to 850. Of the smaller schools, Driscoll has been the fastest growing.

After switching position, first supporting then opposing the feasibility study, the Advisory Committee had most recently proposed to delay spending until after a town meeting next fall. However, town meeting members appeared mostly absorbed–not about timing or spending–but about whether Driscoll was going to become a larger school. The tone of the debate and size of the vote told a story.

By law, Advisory proposes the budget. Harry Bohrs, the committee chair and a Precinct 3 town meeting member, led off debate, saying budgets “communicate our choices…values and aspirations.” One choice was clear: “municipal” expenditures $68 million, up 2 percent, “education” expenditures $87 million, up 5 percent. Advisory proposed a sizable boost in school spending at the expense of almost everything else.

Mr. Bohrs proved about as anodyne as most Advisory chairs over the years. His speech featured acronyms and insider language. Probably a fraction of town meeting members did understand all he said, speaking in that mode, but with so many details few would likely remember it all for long. However, almost everything had been public since the warrant report appeared on Brookline’s municipal Web site two weeks earlier.

Discrepancies turned up, anyway. For example, the school department will have 1,218 “full-time-equivalent” employees, according to the warrant report, versus 1,285 that Mr. Bohrs claimed at town meeting. According to the warrant report, municipal departments will have 679 FTE employees. A couple of minutes later, Mr. Bohrs said for fiscal 2015 there would be 1,374 municipal and 1,671 school employees. Taken at face value, that would apparently mean the average municipal worker is employed about half-time. Really?

Mr. Bohrs faithfully echoed longstanding concerns of Advisory that are now entrenched in town policy: full funding of pension obligations and full anticipation of capital spending for buildings and major equipment, both gaining momentum in the 1970s. He said the current plan for pensions intends to achieve full funding by 2030. If that happens, that goal will have taken about 60 years to reach.

In closing remarks, Mr. Bohrs became more engaged. “Our educational institutions are suffering from system stress,” he said, because of “an unprecedented and sustained surge in our school enrollment.” Predicting a sea change in the community, he said “schools of 500 students are likely a thing of the past.”

Describing the proposed school budget as “unsustainable,” Mr. Bohrs said budgets will be “constrained and tempered by the levels of our resources…[Next year] we will likely be considering an override [to Proposition 2-1/2] in the spring…It’s a decision that will define Brookline.”

Newly elected chair Kenneth Goldstein responded for the Board of Selectmen–patronizing authors of what he called an “award-winning financial plan.” He emphasized “new growth” but focused only on new revenue, omitting to mention any new costs–particularly when “new growth” brings more students to public schools. Most of his speech repeated what Mr. Bohrs had already said but lacked the forward-looking cautions Mr. Bohrs had noted.

Mr. Goldstein’s strongest contribution was to describe investigations by the B-SPACE committee about school expansion, on which he served–leading to what he called an “expand-in-place” plan. That mainly targets Devotion, Lawrence and Driscoll Schools. Of those, only Devotion has a fairly generous campus. The Driscoll campus is small, while the Lawrence campus is hedged by conservation restrictions on adjacent parkland.

Proposed funds for a Driscoll feasibility study produced one of those classic town-meeting debates about bigger issues than what shows on the agenda. Precinct 14 town meeting member Pam Lodish, an Advisory Committee member and former School Committee member, spoke for a delay in spending for a Driscoll feasibility study, saying “we don’t want to disenfranchise significant groups of our community.” She was joined by Werner Lohe from Precinct 13 and by Perry Stoll, a Driscoll parent.

Rebecca Stone, a Precinct 3 town meeting member and current School Committee member, urged town meeting to press ahead, saying, “We know how to run successful, beloved schools with the larger numbers.” She was joined by Betsy DeWitt, speaking for the Board of Selectmen, and by Casey Hatchett, a Driscoll parent. As debate churned on, applause for those points of view grew louder.

Mr. Gadsby held a recorded vote. Using an electronic system, introduced in spring, 2013, it took only about a minute instead of 15 to 20 minutes for the first roll-call votes at town meeting, in 1970. The outcome was 176 in favor of funding without delay versus 43 in favor of delay and 5 abstaining. Town meeting appears to have made up its mind: Driscoll parents must accept a larger school.

On the balance of the budget article, there were several questions, but only at-large Advisory Committee member Leonard Weiss spoke at length. He said it was time for school management “to demonstrate leadership on affordability.” Town meeting passed almost the entire fiscal 2015 budget unanimously, except that Regina Frawley of Precinct 16 asked to be recorded as opposing the operating budget for Public Schools of Brookline.

Article 9, submitted by former Precinct 6 town meeting member Arthur W. Conquest, III, and by Brooks Ames, a member of the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission, sought adoption of a state law allowing a higher income-limit for senior residents seeking property-tax deferral. They also proposed a lower interest-rate. Both the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee supported the higher income-limit but opposed the lower interest-rate. That approach passed unanimously.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 29, 2014

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