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Brookline ramps up talks on property tax increases

Posted by Brock Parker  May 15, 2013 10:11 AM

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Brookline is ramping up consideration of what could potentially be multiple property tax increases as selectmen Tuesday night approved the formation of an override study committee.

The committee will be chaired by Selectman Richard Benka could make recommendations as early March of 2014 about whether the town needs an override to meet the Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The committee will also look at longer term needs of the town.

“I’m really not looking forward to this process,” Benka said. “I think it is going to be a difficult one.”

The formation of the override study committee comes as the town is trying to figure out how to accommodate a surge in enrollment figures in Brookline schools that has been sustained since 2005.

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 school officials have 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.

A Committee on Brookline School Population and Capital Expenditures (referred to as B-SPACE) has been established to explore the town’s options in creating more school space, including whether by building a new Kindergarten through 8th Grade school, renovating and using the old Lincoln School and whether to expand Brookline High School.

On Monday night, the B-SPACE committee voted to stop considering building an new 8th grade or 8th and 9th grade school as a long term solution to address the enrollment growth. Building the school would change Brookline's model of Kindergarten through 8th grade schools and a four-year high school. Superintendent of Schools Bill Lupini said the change would not be one the district would make for academic reasons. He said there are few 10th through 12th grade high schools, and adding an 8th and 9th grade school would add another transition for students as they work their way through the school system.

But building any type of new school is likely to necessitate a debt exclusion override to pay for the facility, according to town officials. The cost of operating and staffing a new school facility could also necessitate an override.

Selectwoman Nancy Daly said Tuesday that as the override study committee looks at the possibility for tax increases, the town needs to try and nail down why enrollment has been surging and whether it will continue.

Increases in enrollment began in 2005 with a kindergarten class of 480 students, which was much larger than the 400 to 420 kindergarten student classes the district had been having for years. Enrollment has been increasing ever since, and has peaked with a record kindergarten class of 666 students this year.

“I still don’t feel I have any definitive answer as to why this change has taken place,” Daly said.

Selectmen Chairwoman Betsy DeWitt, who is co-chairing B-SPACE, said the town has done its best to get data to explain the increases and there are several demographic studies that have been done.

DeWitt said several factors seem to be contributing to the increase, from the number of new families moving into the town, often because they are attracted to the good schools in a place that has good public transportation.

Given the needs of the school system, Benka said the town does not want to under-bill the taxpayers, but also does not want to over-bill by “investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in space that becomes unnecessary.”

Benka said the override study committee will look at a wide range of factors, including the long-range financial projections, possible inefficiencies that can be found in town and school operations, and the taxpayer capacity for an increased tax burden.

If an override is deemed necessary to meet the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, the committee will make its recommendations by March 1, 2014, and recommendations for longer term needs will be made by Aug. 15, 2014.

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