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Brookline mulling tax hikes, new school to accommodate students

Posted by Brock Parker  March 27, 2013 10:32 PM

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Brookline officials are mulling proposals that could put two property tax overrides before voters as soon as May 2014 in an effort to accommodate the surging school enrollment numbers.

The tax increases could be used to raise money for the new school and to pay for additional staffing. But officials are still discussing different ways they could create the needed additional space, such as building a new school for 8th and 9th grade students, or building what would be the district’s ninth Kindergarten through 8th grade school and expanding the high school.

School officials believe a long term solution, such as the opening of a new school, would need to be in place by the 2017-2018 school year in order to accommodate surging enrollment numbers, said Superintendent of Schools Bill Lupini.

The School Committee and the Committee on Brookline School Population and Capital Expenditures (referred to as B-SPACE) held a joint meeting in Town Hall to discuss the options Wednesday night, and Selectmen Chairwoman Betsy DeWitt said if the town decides to build another school, it would have to act fast to have it open in time for the 2017-2018 school year.

“There’s not a lot of time to waste in making a decision about it,” said DeWitt, who is a member of B-SPACE.

The town is planning its first public hearing on the topics for Monday, April 8, at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall.

Since the 2004-2005 school year, the number of students enrolled in Brookline schools has jumped from 5,779 to 7,217 this school year, an increase of about 25 percent.

Brookline has recently expanded its Runkle and Heath schools, and is planning a $90 million renovation and expansion of the Devotion School in an effort to accommodate the students. But enrollment continues to grow, and Lupini said that by the fall of 2017, the school district may not be able to accommodate all of the students at the Brookline High School campus.

The town has considered housing an additional school in the now vacant Old Lincoln School on Boylston Street, but because of space constraints, Lupini said the building does not appear to be a permanent solution.

Lupini said right now there are three proposals town officials are discussing about how to create an additional school.

The town could use the Old Lincoln School to house all 8th grade students as soon as 2014-2015, while pursuing the construction of a new 8th and 9th grade school at an undetermined location.

But Lupini said that by the fall of 2017, when the number of 8th graders in the town is expected to grow to about 650, the Old Lincoln School would not be able to accommodate all of the students.

The fall of 2017 is also when Lupini said the district may no longer be able to accommodate all of the 9-12 grade students at Brookline High School. About 1,770 students are at the school this year, but than number is expected to grow to 2,136 by the fall of 2017, Lupini said.

“And that is a problem,” he said.

As a result, Lupini said school officials think a new school may need to open that fall.

Deputy Town Administrator Sean Cronin said the town will likely need a debt exclusion override and operating budget override in order to be able to afford a new school. He said the town could opt to seek a debt exclusion override to pay the town’s portion of the Devotion School expansion, and that would free up money in the town’s capital budget to pay for a new school. The override for the Devotion School project could be put on the ballot in May 2014 alongside a general proposition 2 ½ override to cover the operating cost of running a school in the Old Lincoln School, and that funding could then be reallocated to run the new 8th and 9th grade school once it is completed.

The town is expecting to need about $54 million to pay for the Devotion School project, and state funding is expected to pay the remaining amount. The cost of an override to cover operating costs for a new school has not been calculated.

Lupini said the school district could instead build a new Kindergarten through 8th grade school. However, that proposal would still require an expansion of Brookline High School, unlike the proposal for an 8th and 9th grade school. The creation of a new Kindergarten through 8th grade school would also require redistricting where students throughout the town go to school.

A third option that would also require redistricting would be to create a “super-elementary” school that would combine one of the town’s existing Kindergarten through 8th grade schools with the Old Lincoln School. Students at the school would be split between the two buildings, and Lupini said the proposal would permanently use the Old Lincoln School. But he said creating the super-school would require a massive redistricting effort that would be difficult to complete by the fall of 2014. A solution would still be needed for enrollment growth at the high school, too, he said.

In addition to deciding which scenario to pursue, DeWitt said officials will face additional challenges if they decide to build a new school.

She said the town would need to establish an override committee and find a place to build the new school.

“There is the small problem of where are we going to put it,” she said.

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