Override Study Committee: $5 million tax override, plus Devotion School debt exclusion

The long-running Override Study Committee of 2013 met Tuesday and Wednesday, July 29 and 30, 2014, starting at 6:00 pm, in the fifth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. The committee voted to recommend a general tax override and a debt exclusion to renovate and enlarge Devotion School.

For almost a year, the key issue for the committee has been how much, if any, added taxes to recommend for Brookline schools. Municipal departments have been able to maintain their services for many years without needing more budget increases than state law allows through town meeting action.

As their July 30 meeting finally showed, the 15 voting members of the committee divided between what most towns might call moderate and liberal outlooks. No one opposed some general tax override for operating schools or some debt exclusion for school buildings. Differences on the committee involved the amounts.

Enrollments, spending and inflation: Brookline schools have experienced sustained growth in enrollment, averaging 2.5 percent per year, from 2005 through last year. There was a 22 percent increase in total enrollment over that eight-year span. So far, there has been no sign of the trend slowing.

School spending per student got about a 10 percent boost from the last general override, in 2008. State law allows a 2.5 percent increase in tax revenue per year, and Brookline has been increasing its taxes by that amount each year. As a result, spending per student stayed about the same for fiscal 2009 through fiscal 2014, as measured in the dollars of those years.

However, inflation eroded purchasing power. Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2014, judged by the U.S. consumer price index, purchasing power of the dollar fell about 10 percent. A 2.5 percent budget increase per year, allowed under state law, has not been enough to offset inflation and enrollment growth combined.

Recommendations: Restoring inflation-adjusted school spending per student to the peak levels from the 1990s through early years of this century would take around a ten percent school budget increase. That would mean around a five percent tax override.

After a nearly a year of studying and wrangling, by roll-call votes on July 30 the committee recommended a permanent, general tax override of $5 million per year. It also recommended a debt service exclusion for $23 million to renovate and enlarge Devotion School.

Tax increase: The recommended tax override would increase Brookline taxes about 2.7 percent. The recommended debt exclusion would add about 0.9 percent more in taxes for an estimated 25 years. If accepted by the Board of Selectmen and then approved by Brookline voters next spring, when added to a usual 2.5 percent increase, allowed under state law, Brookline taxes would increase about 5 percent next year–but about 6 percent when debt service payments for the Devotion School project develop.

Earlier this month, School Committee member Rebecca Stone predicted the committee would recommend a general override of about 5 percent. That proved mistaken; the committee’s recommendation is about half as much. The resulting 6-percent tax increase would be much less than an increase of up to 14 percent that some observers said they expected last spring. This season, mavens somehow got garbled messages.

Committee wrangling: Events of July 29 and 30 showed a polarized committee. Based on the roll-call votes, eight moderates on the committee were Clifford Brown, Chad Ellis, Janet Gelbart, Sergio Modigliani, Carol Levin, Lee Selwyn, James Stergios and Ann Tolkoff. Based on the roll-call votes, seven liberals on the committee were Alberto Chang, Michael Glover, Carol Kamin, Kevin Lang, Lisa Sheehan, Beth Stram and Timothy Sullivan. There was no one opposed to some amount of general tax override for school operations or to some amount of debt exclusion for school buildings.

As of Tuesday, July 29, widespread rumors held that Kenneth Goldstein, chair of the Board of Selectmen, had told the non-voting committee chairs, Richard Benka and Susan Ditkoff, that the committee should wind up its work and send its recommendations and report. Those were confirmed by comments at the meeting. Observers expected a vote on a general override.

A flurry of paper appeared at the two meetings: 15 documents at the first and four more at the second. An unsigned document dated July 28, proposing a committee recommendation, called for a general tax override of $7 million. At the July 29 meeting, committee member Kevin Lang described that proposal as a “compromise.” He said he hoped it would develop into a “consensus.” Over two hours of wrangling ensued.

In the end, the Override Study Committee voted not to vote. A motion by Kevin Lang, seconded by Chad Ellis, proposed the committee consolidate their positions on a general tax override through a series of votes starting from the “compromise” proposal. That motion failed on a tie vote. According to co-chair Susan Ditkoff, there were seven in favor, seven opposed and one abstaining.

With committee member Alberto Chang connected by telephone on July 29, co-chair Richard Benka had previously said any vote would be by roll call, but no roll call occurred on the vote not to vote. Since the meeting was recorded by Brookline Interactive, once the video goes online, readers may be able to see how committee members voted.

Committee votes: On July 30, two more proposals were presented. A “high budget” proposal, presented by committee members Beth Stram and Kevin Lang, called for a general tax override of $7.9 million, for school operations, and for debt exclusion of $58.8 million, for the Devotion School project and future school building projects. It was partly described in an unsigned document dated July 29.

A “low-budget” proposal, presented by committee members James Stergios and Chad Ellis, called for a general tax override of $5 million, for school operations, and for debt exclusion of $23 million, for the Devotion School project only. It was described in an unsigned, undated document distributed July 29.

It was apparently Prof. Lang who wrote in one of the documents about “starving” schools with a “low-budget” approach. On July 30, committee members Clifford Brown and Chad Ellis were peeved. Committee member Janet Gelbart said, “Schools are not being starved.” Co-chair Richard Benka sought to make peace, saying, “There are countervailing factors.” Prof. Lang said the word in question was “unfortunate.”

On July 29, Ms. Gelbart said that when seeking information about school priorities for more funds, “Nobody was able to explain to me how the money would be used.” On July 30, Mr. Ellis said that the “low-budget” proposal provided “the amount we see as clearly necessary and appropriate.”

Committee member Sergio Modigliani moved to adopt the “low-budget” proposal. Prof. Lang moved to substitute the “high-budget” proposal. After more than an another hour of wrangling and some parliamentary maneuvers, co-chair Susan Ditkoff conducted roll-call votes. The “high-budget” proposal failed 7 to 8, dividing the liberals and moderates, and then the “low-budget” proposal passed 9 to 6, with Carol Kamin in favor.

Except for filing a report, the votes on July 30 appear to end the committee’s work–nearly a year after it was appointed. The committee had been charged to make recommendations and file a report by March 1 of this year, but it failed to do that.

Committee history: According to minutes of the Board of Selectmen from August 20, 2013, a vote occurred on August 13, 2013, appointing members of the Override Study Committee. No agenda or minutes have been posted on Brookline’s municipal Web site for a meeting of the Board of Selectmen on August 13, 2013. The meeting schedule for August, 2013, formerly posted on the Web site, has been erased.

During July and August of last year, several of Brookline’s well known activists applied to join this committee. Town Administrator Mel Kleckner advised the Board of Selectmen to appoint people presenting a limited range of business and professional credentials. Some of those appointed had years of experience involving Brookline issues and government, but most of them did not.

Although it seemed to have developed a group dynamic, from a public perspective the committee did not communicate well. As of the July 30 meeting, the most recent committee documents and minutes on Brookline’s municipal Web site were from April 16. Notices for recent meetings were generic. They did not describe specific topics.

While insiders knew, from those notices the public would have been unable to tell that on July 29 and 30–in contrast to almost a year of prior meetings–the committee was to vote on recommending a general tax override. According to the state attorney general, “The list of topics must be sufficiently specific to reasonably inform the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting.”

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, July 31, 2014


William Lupini, Superintendent’s preliminary FY2015 budget (summary), March 13, 2014, enrollment data on page 19 and spending chart on page 27

Attorney General of Massachusetts, Open Meeting Law Guide, August 1, 2013

Creating Brookline’s Override Study Committee of 2013, compiled from minutes of the Board of Selectmen posted on Brookline’s municipal Web site, July 30, 2014

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