Advisory subcommittee on capital: school-building projects

On Wednesday, January 14, the Advisory subcommittee on capital met in the third-floor conference room at Town Hall, starting at 11:00 am. Four of the five subcommittee members were there–all except Amy Hummel–along with Sean Cronin, the deputy town administrator. The meeting attracted another member of the Advisory Committee, three School Committee members, a Planning Board member, a Precinct 7 town meeting member and parents from the Baker and Driscoll School districts.

The unusually large turnout for an Advisory subcommittee meeting on a weekday morning suggested strong interest in plans for school expansion and renovation, heading the agenda. At the May 5 town election, the Board of Selectmen is now widely expected to propose a Proposition 2-1/2 debt exclusion for Devotion School expansion and renovation, as well as a Proposition 2-1/2 “operating” tax override, mainly for public schools.

Past projects: So far, Brookline has performed two school-building projects using Proposition 2-1/2 debt exclusions:

• New Lincoln School construction, December 1, 1990, by vote of 5,919 to 2,963
• High School renovation, December 12, 1995, by vote of 4,648 to 3,038

In different past elections, Brookline voters also approved two Proposition 2-1/2 “operating” tax overrides, partly to benefit public schools:

• $2.96 million per year, May 3, 1994, by vote of 5,958 to 5,072
• $6.20 million per year, May 6, 2008, by vote of 5,236 to 4,305

Future projects: Mr. Cronin told subcommittee members that a preliminary FY2016 capital improvements program he drafted for the Board of Selectmen already includes two additional school projects, beyond Devotion School, also likely to need Proposition 2-1/2 debt exclusions. A High School addition, slated for 2019, is currently estimated at $56 million.

A major project for elementary school expansion and renovations, slated for 2022 or later, is estimated at $48 million. The project description suggests a new, ninth elementary school as an alternative. In addition, the preliminary capital improvement program includes $2.3 million spread over five years for “classroom capacity.” Mr. Cronin cautioned that estimated costs are based on past projects, not on specific plans.

Subcommittee member Clifford Brown asked Mr. Cronin how Brookline voters would know how much of Brookline’s normal capital funding is being used for the Devotion project and how much is covered by debt exclusion. The answer surprised most of the subcommittee and the audience. Mr. Cronin said a debt exclusion ballot question only names a project and gives no financial information. Mark Gray, a Precinct 7 town meeting member, asked if a ballot question could specify only part of a project. Mr. Cronin said he did not think so. School Committee member Helen Charlupski remembered that the 1990s debt exclusion questions included amounts of funding.

It turns out that our Great and General Court changed the law about fifteen years ago. The ballot questions formerly specified amounts of money, but now they read like blank checks. It is up to the Board of Selectmen to tell voters what they mean to do. There are limits on funds, however. They are set by the state Department of Revenue, based on appropriations and bonding authorizations voted by town meetings.

Subcommittee members worried that Brookline was embarking on uneconomic spending. School Committee member David Pollak said that was not the case. Modular classrooms being planned for Baker School and rental space planned for Pierce, he said, were far less expensive than constructing new buildings. Subcommittee chair Carla Benka was concerned about overruns. Fred Levitan, a subcommittee member, recalled that the Town Hall and new Lincoln School projects had been completed on-time and on-budget.

Predicting capital improvements: Brookline’s capital improvement planning has not provided reliable predictions for most types of projects. A study published in 1979 by the Advisory Committee found almost no agreement between projects and predictions five years earlier. Recent years provide the following comparisons for major projects–$1 million and more–funded for the current year.

FY2015 major projects, funds in $millions

Project Predicted Predicted Predicted Actual
Description as of 2009 as of 2011 as of 2013 in FY2015
street rehabilitation $1.55 $1.55 $1.55 $1.55
landfill closure $4.60 $4.60 $4.60 $4.60
wastewater system none $3.00 none none
Village traffic system none none none $1.20
Reservoir Park $1.40 none none none
Baldwin School $1.78 none none none
Devotion School none $48.75 none none
Driscoll School* none none none $1.00
school classrooms none none none $1.75

            * A proposed Driscoll School project was rejected by the state and cancelled.

Source: Financial Plan documents, Town of Brookline, MA

Only routine Public Works projects were predicted reliably during this time period.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, January 16, 2015


Board of Selectmen: larger tax override, Brookline Beacon, January 14, 2014

Sean Cronin, Preliminary FY2016-FY2021 Capital Improvement Program, Town of Brookline, MA, January 13, 2015

Override Study Committee: $5 million tax override, plus Devotion School debt exclusion, Brookline Beacon, July 31, 2014

Financial Plan, FY2015 and previous years, Town of Brookline, MA

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