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Brookline facing tough choices to meet enrollment surge

Posted by Brock Parker  June 25, 2013 11:08 AM

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More than 250 people crowded into a hearing Monday night to discuss what Brookline will do to accommodate surging student enrollment in the public schools and the potential for a tax hike that could cost property owners well over $600 a year.

Some audience members wore green shirts as a show of support for Amory Park and in opposition to a an option being considered that would use a portion of the North Brookline park as a location for a new school.

Looking out at the green shirts in the crowd Monday, Selectmen Chairwoman Betsy DeWitt said officials are aware of the value of Amory Park and the desire to keep the green space instead of building a school there.

“Clearly around this location there is substantial community opposition,” said DeWitt who is co-chairing the Committee on Brookline School Population and Capital Expenditures, referred to as B-SPACE.

The B-SPACE committee is also considering other options for building new classroom space, but each option has potential problems ranging from cost, to location, or parent and community opposition.

School officials say they have to find a way to accommodate the increasing student population, however, because the number of students has jumped by about 25 percent since the 2004-2005 school year, with especially sharp increases in the number of students in the early grades.

Some sites being consideration for a new Kindergarten through 8th grade school are considered too far from where students live in the town, DeWitt said. In other locations, the town does not own any property to build a school on, and another option, expanding the town’s vacant old Lincoln School on Route 9 has also drawn considerable opposition from parents who say the building is no longer suitable for permanent use as a school.

Finding more classroom space for the soon-to-be overcrowded Brookline High School is proving to be an equally difficult task.

As the town scrambles to find a solution, the cost of paying for the additional classroom space is also beginning to come into focus.

By adding construction costs and the cost of staffing and operating the new classroom space, B-SPACE committee member Michael Sandman said the various options under consideration would range anywhere from a 6.7 percent to a 9 percent property tax increase on the median Brookline single family home, which is valued at about $1,071,750.

“The least that we can expect to be asking for in an override to fund all of this is somewhere around 6.7 percent increase in taxes, or on a typical median single family home about $670 a year,” Sandman said.

Sandman said it would be difficult to get the majority of the town to vote for an override that would increase their property taxes by 9 percent.

A separate override study committee that will be co-chaired by Selectman Richard Benka and School Committee member Susan Wolf Ditkoff is now being formed to study how large of an override the town will need to propose to voters to fund the school projects.

Brookline has already expanded its Runkle and Heath schools, and is planning a $90 million renovation and expansion of the Devotion School in an effort to accommodate more 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.

Interest in the options was high Monday, as the crowd for the B-SPACE hearing filled the selectmen’s hearing room in town hall and filled a second room one floor below where the meeting was simulcast on television.

DeWitt laid out the options the town is considering for adding classrooms for the Kindergarten through 8th grade students. In addition to building a new school on the southwest corner of Amory Park, where a baseball diamond now sits, the committee is also mulling whether a new school could instead be built in South Brookline at the site of the Baldwin School, which houses some special education and pre-school classes, even though most of the students do not live in that part of town.

Using the old Lincoln School remains on the table, and DeWitt said the town is exploring whether there is room to instead expand several of the existing Kindergarten through 8th grade schools.

As the surge in the number of students begin to reach Brookline High School in the next few years, the committee is also considering whether to expand the existing high school and do away with one of the gyms, expand the school by using the Old Lincoln school as an extension of the campus, or attempt to buy some land on Cypress Street near the high school for an expansion. A more expensive option would be to build a new high school for about $72 million, according to the committee, and that price does not include the cost of buying property for the school.

While several of the options on the table have drawn opposition from the community, Alan Morse, the School Committee chairman and co-chair of the B-SPACE committee said that once the an option is chosen, it will need support from everyone in order get the voters’ approval of an override.

“I ask you to think about the future when we will need everybody voting together if we are going to be successful,” Morse said.

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