The Board of Selectmen held two October hearings on potential tax overrides for next year, both in the sixth floor meeting room at Town Hall. The first was Thursday evening, October 9, starting at 7:30 pm, and the second was Monday morning, October 20, starting at 9:00 am. Each hearing drew about 80 participants and listeners. Perhaps the board expected differences between morning and evening, but views expressed proved similar.
Public schools: The key problem is costs of Brookline public schools. That is driven mostly by enrollment, which has increased for at least six years. On August 13, 2013, the board appointed an override study committee to review the issues and make recommendations. The committee divided into 9 subgroups, holding 174 officially posted meetings over almost a year. It voted recommendations last July 30.
At the final meeting, committee member Sergio Modigliani moved to recommend $5.0 million per year in additional property taxes to support town operations and a one-time exclusion from the tax limit for $23.0 million in debt to renovate and expand Devotion School. Committee member Kevin Lang moved to amend: $7.9 million additional per year for operations and a $58.8 million debt exclusion for school construction.
The committee decided to vote the matters separately. Prof. Lang’s amendments failed, 7 to 8. Mr. Modigliani’s motions passed, 9 to 6. They became the committee’s recommendations to the Board of Selectmen. The Brookline TAB did not send a reporter to that meeting and failed to describe committee actions as they happened, saying instead there was “no consensus.” Indeed there was no consensus, but there were votes.
Factions: Recently, some members of the Board of Selectmen have begun mentioning “group 1″ proposals–meaning the committee’s recommendations from June 30–and “group 2″ proposals–meaning ones for higher amounts that the committee rejected. Of the nine committee members in the majority, five spoke at the hearings: Clifford Brown, Chad Ellis, Janet Gelbart, Carol Levin and Lee Selwyn, supported by co-chair Richard Benka. Of the six members in the minority, only Beth Stram spoke.
At risk of adding fuel to a fire, William Lupini, the school superintendent, spoke at an October 7 meeting of the Board of Selectmen, seeking more money than “group 2″ proposals. If the Board of Selectmen proposes a tax override, Brookline voters will decide. Current plans would place a question on the town election ballot next spring. Views expressed at the two hearings clustered around five override options and five other concerns:
• Maximum override, as sought by Dr. Lupini
• High override, the “group 2″ proposals
• Low override, the “group 1″ proposals
• Some override, amounts and purposes unstated
• No override for any purpose
• Support for METCO and employee programs
• Opposition to METCO and employee programs
• Devotion School expansion and renovation plans
• A new, ninth elementary school
• High school expansion
Many speakers described affiliations, including Brookline High School (BHS), an elementary school–Baker, Devotion, Driscoll, Heath, Lawrence, Lincoln, Pierce or Runkle–service as town meeting members (TMM) or on the override study committee (OSC), and the Brookline Educators Union (BEU).
Maximum override: Dr. Lupini has outlined a spending plan he says would require an additional $12.29 million in tax revenue for fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018 combined. He did not make clear his base of comparison, but apparently he is somehow calling for more than $15.38 million in added revenue that the override study committee recommends for those years, including 2.5 percent increases for 2017 and 2018.
At the hearings, Dr. Lupini’s plan was generally supported by Jessica Wender-Shubow, BEU president and a BHS teacher, by Dominique Aumiller, BEU vice president, a BHS teacher and a Devotion parent, by Emily England, a Baker parent, by Keira Flynn-Carson, a BHS teacher, and by Mike Toeffel, a Devotion parent.
Ms. Wender-Shubow said that under current management, “60 to 90 students can be in a room with a single educator.” Ms. Flynn-Carson maintained that “essential intangibles [were] neglected by committee.” Ms. Aumiller described the difference between “intense discussions with 15 students” and, last year, a class of 28 students, saying, “Half…never talked.”
High override: Last June 30, a minority of the override committee proposed higher amounts than those the override study committee recommends: $7.9 million per year for school operations, plus debt exclusion of $58.8 million for school building projects. Some members of the Board of Selectmen have been referring to those as “group 2″ proposals although they were rejected. They have no status as recommendations.
At the hearings, the high override was generally supported by Lauren Bernard of John St., a Devotion parent and Precinct 8 TMM, by Sarah Boehs of Aspinwall Ave., a Lawrence parent, by Jack Hall of Washington St., a Driscoll parent, by Brian Hochleutner of Elm St., a Pierce parent and Precinct 6 TMM, by Hai-ying Peng of Bradford Terrace, a Devotion parent, by Pamela Roberts, a Devotion parent, by David Root of Longwood Ave., a Lawrence parent, by Andrew Shalit of Griggs Terrace, a Pierce parent, by Beth Stram, a BHS parent and an OSC member, by Jillian Webster of Naples Rd., a Devotion parent, and by Charla Whitlay, a Devotion parent.
Ms. Bernard said, “Past experiences at Devotion were more enriching…Adequate staffing is the issue.” The school has lost most of its former special-purpose rooms and is now subdivided into warrens of small rooms and cubicles. However, Ms. Stram said, “Devotion cannot be the only solution.” She was supported by several others concerned about school-space needs. Mr. Hochleutner maintained, “The OSC assumptions were wrong…We need a buffer, a safety zone.”
Low override: A compromise approach is the lower override that was recommended by the committee on June 30: $5 million per year for school operations plus debt exclusion of $23 million for expansion and renovation of Devotion School. The committee acknowledges, if enrollment continues to increase, that more funding may be needed in future years.
At the hearings, the low override was generally supported by Richard Benka of Circuit Rd., co-chair of OSC, by Clifford Brown of Hyslop Rd, a Precinct 13 TMM and an OSC member, by Chad Ellis of Chesham Rd., a Runkle parent, a Precinct 12 TMM and an OSC member, by Janet Gelbart of St. Paul St., an OSC member, by Carol Levin, a Runkle parent and an OSC member, by Linda Olsen Pehlke of Browne St, a Precinct 2 TMM, by Dr. Nadhave Prakash of Bradford Terrace, by Lee Selwyn of Reservoir Rd., an OSC member, by Dr. Stanley Spiegel of Stetson St., a Precinct 2 TMM, by Dr. Sundar Srinivasan of Salisbury Rd., a Driscoll parent, and by Megan Zorn, a Driscoll parent.
Mr. Benka asserted that “schools want substantial additional programs…We have to avoid overstatement.” Mr. Ellis quoted Susan Ditkoff, School Committee chair and co-chair of OSC, as stating that if the low override were adopted, the school “enrichment and challenge support program would be dropped.” Ms. Zorn claimed that “fear-mongering [is being] used to quell dissent.” In a more practical tone, Ms. Gelbart said the Board of Selectmen should “pass what is needed at a level the town can afford.” Dr. Spiegel advised caution, saying, “There’s opposition gearing up for this override…The number zero will be on the ballot as well.”
Some override: Some speakers at the hearings voiced support for an override without saying which option or what amounts they favored. They included Cina Doctoroff of Williston Rd., a Runkle parent, Craig Hagen of Colbourne Crescent, a Runkle parent, Pamela Katz of Columbia St., a Devotion parent and Precinct 9 TMM, Ellen Messing of Kilsyth Rd., a Driscoll parent, and Carrie Staff of Stedman St., a Devotion parent.
Ms. Katz claimed there was “not a single [Devotion] classroom that has not had some kind of compromise.” Ms. Staff said, “Devotion cannot be the only solution.” Ms. Messing asserted, “OSC significantly overstates the costs of METCO.”
No override: Although a distinct minority, some at the hearings questioned the need for an override. Perhaps most vehement was Saralynn Allaire of Bellingham Rd., a Precinct 16 TMM. She seemed not to favor Dr. Lupini, the school superintendent, saying, “He of course does not pay taxes here and presumably does not care about the town overall.” She proposed a solution to more students from Hancock Village, if a Chapter 40B housing project goes through: “Bus them up to the Heath School.”
Regina Frawley of Russett Rd., a Precinct 16 TMM, acknowledged Brookline was a “liberal” town, saying, “You can’t name a social program we’re not supporting.” She urged the Board of Selectmen to have concern for people “in single-family houses, on fixed incomes…We’re looking at pushing seniors out.” Pamela Lodish of Fisher Ave., a Precinct 14 TMM, questioned continuation of METCO and school employee programs, saying, “We don’t have the space.” She is “not in favor of a huge tax increase when these points are not being addressed.”
Support for METCO and employee programs: Starting in December of last year, Mr. Selwyn and Mr. Benka of the override study committee began singling out METCO and the student program for town employees as villains of school spending. Mr. Selwyn introduced the issues at a meeting attended by Jessica Wender-Shubow, a native of Brookline who now heads the Brookline Educators Union. Word quickly got around that Brookline had a committee with members hostile to two of the community’s longstanding social programs.
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, the program was described as filling “available seats” in classrooms.
In the 1970s, a similar approach was taken to a student program for town employees, who have been allowed to enroll their children in Brookline schools, paying a so-called “materials fee” to compensate for direct costs. Students in these programs do not get their choices of school. Instead, they are assigned where space is most available. Because of the approach, school administrators have always maintained that the main costs are not financial but social, increasing some class sizes.
At the hearings, Brookline’s longstanding social programs in the schools were generally supported by Joanna Baker of Beacon St., a Precinct 13 TMM, by Suzanne Farman of Centre St., a Devotion parent, by Eana Meng, a BHS student and founder of Brookline Friends of METCO, by Ellen Messing of Kilsyth Rd., a Driscoll parent, by Danielle Rabbina, a BHS teacher, by Joseph Segel of Beacon St, by Dr. Min Song of Bradford Terrace, a Devotion parent, by Suzanna Stern, a Runkle parent, by Henry Varon, a BHS student, by Ms. Wender-Shubow and by Catherine Wolf, a BHS teacher.
Ms. Baker suggested that some in Brookline “may have forgotten the value METCO brings to the Boston area, [addressing] unequal access to education.” Mr. Varon said, “METCO offers the most diversity of any program in the schools.” According to Ms. Meng, “Race becomes something we appreciate rather than something that separates us.” Ms. Messing called METCO “an amazing and inspiring experience for my kids.” Mr. Segel emphasized the value of METCO in helping Brookline students learn how to interact well with people from different backgrounds. In the work world, he said, “a diverse work force is one of the most valuable assets a company has.”
Speaking about the employee student or so-called “materials fee” program, Ms. Miller said it “encourages and retains high-quality teachers.” Ms. Rabbina, a 14-year veteran in Brookline schools, said that if the program were compromised, she “would look elsewhere.” According to Ms. Wender-Shubow, “teachers are demoralized” from the committee’s attack against the employee program. “You are talking about sustaining middle-class families,” she said.
Opposition to METCO and employee programs: Richard Benka of Circuit Rd., co-chair of OSC, kept up attacks on the METCO program, claiming it represents “a 6-1/2 million dollar annual subsidy to Boston. Lee Selwyn of Reservoir Rd., an OSC member, asserted that “these programs are not free.” If they were to be ended, he claimed, school “expansion would not be required…An override could be avoided.”
Linda Olsen Pehlke of Browne St., a Precinct 2 TMM, did not seem to have read much about the 1960s in Boston. She asked, “What were the conditions when [METCO] was established?” Chad Ellis of Chesham Rd., a Runkle parent, Precinct 12 TMM and OSC member, asked, “Is that the best way that we could support diversity?” Dr. Stanley Spiegel of Stetson St., a Precinct 2 TMM, asked, “Why should we have to pay more taxes to educate non-resident students, whose own families pay their taxes elsewhere?” Pamela Lodish of Fisher Ave., a Precinct 14 TMM, said, “We don’t have the space.”
Devotion School plans: The current plan for Devotion School made three residents of Bradford Terrace unhappy. That is an apartment building on Babcock St. without the side and rear setbacks now required by zoning. Maya French complained that the Devotion School Building Committee chose “the most expensive plan for Devotion.” However, the committee obtained two sets of cost estimates. While the option they chose was the most expensive of three according to one estimate, it was the middle of three according to the other estimate.
Since no one but residents of Bradford Terrace was complaining about Devotion School plans, the real issue looked to be something else. An initial plan for a proposed new south wing is closer to Babcock St. than the current building. From Table 5.01 of the zoning bylaw, the minimum setback appears to be around 50 ft–about the current amount. The initial plan showed a new south building set back about half as much. Under a special permit, which might be needed, the Zoning Board of Appeals can modify setback requirements.
Manny Howard of Bradford Terrace complained that the proposed building “will prevent the warmth of the sun from reaching our property.” However, sunlight comes mainly from the south, while the new building is mainly to the north of Bradford Terrace. Dr. Min Song of Bradford Terrace wanted to scrap the existing school and build an entirely new one, calling the current plan “a suburban school in an urban lot.” Jillian Webster of Naples Rd., a Devotion parent, contended that the other options considered by the Devotion School Building Committee, but rejected, “won’t provide the quality of experiences parents expect from their schools.”
New, ninth elementary school: Some parents had concerns about plans for school expansion, to accommodate increasing enrollment. A few years ago, Brookline engaged in a tedious examination of the issue, resulting in an “expand-in-place” strategy for which the current Lawrence School project and the planned Devotion School project are the first outcomes. These fail to meet even current needs for elementary schools, accommodating at most a few hundred more students, and they do nothing for the high school.
Contending that “expand-in-place” was a failure were Sarah Kitterman of Kenwood St., a Devotion parent, Dr. Min Song of Bradford Terrace, a Devotion parent, Dr. Sundar Srinivasan of Salisbury Rd., a Driscoll parent, and Pelly Stoll of Evans Rd., a Driscoll parent. Dr. Srinivasan asserted, “We do not have sufficient backup plans.” He cited a project in Newton expected to add “24 new classrooms for $40 million,” including land. Mr. Stoll said Brookline’s current efforts amount to “a shrug of a plan.”
High school expansion: Lack of plans to address overcrowding at the high school, expected as the current, large elementary classes move up, concerned several parents. They included Emily England, a Baker parent, Robert Liao, a Heath parent, Dr. Min Song, a Devotion parent, Beth Stram, a BHS parent and an OSC member, and Megan Zorn, a Driscoll parent.
Ms. England said it was “shameful not to look at solutions for the high school now.” Ms. Zorn recalled that Dr. Luipini had said that “the high school might run 5 am to 7 pm…This suggestion is outrageous.” Mr. Liao claimed, “Six years is enough to plan for the high school…[Planning] should start now.”
– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, October 21, 2014
School Committee: budget crisis evaporates for this year, Brookline Beacon, April 11, 2014
Annual town meeting: budgets and a larger Driscoll school, Brookline Beacon, May 29, 2014
Override Study Committee: $5 million tax override, plus Devotion School debt exclusion, Brookline Beacon, July 31, 2014
Board of Selectmen: appointments, warrant articles, school spending, Brookline Beacon, October 8, 2014