It is looking more likely that Brookline may build a ninth elementary school to support the rapid rise in public school enrollment in the town that has occurred over the last decade.  For years, this topic has been moved to the back burner in favor of “expanding in place” at the sites of the existing eight elementary schools to make way for more students.  On October 22 however, the Brookline School Committee and the Board of Selectmen both separately voted and approved  two critical motions; taking an important first step towards a ninth elementary school becoming a reality.  The motions were as follows:

  1. Construction of a ninth school is the preferred solution to addressing continued enrollment growth in elementary grades in the Brookline Public Schools.  Staff is directed to conduct further planning and analysis in support of this decision.
  2. Staff is directed to focus their effort for additional due diligence and analysis, at this time, on the following two sites identified in the Ninth Elementary School Site Identification Study: Cottage Farm and the Isabel School.

At the October 22 meeting, both boards heard from Susan Silberberg of Civic Moxie, a planning, urban design and real estate development firm, and Kara Brewton, the town Director of Economic Development on potential sites within Brookline for a ninth elementary school.  After analyzing 26 initial sites, six were presented at the meeting which were most in line with key criteria put forth by the Town of Brookline.   The site criteria included walkability (over 40% of current Brookline elementary school students live ¼ mile from their school), physical size, density of students, location relative to other schools, access to green space and parking, etc.  Legal and historical factors were also taken into consideration.   The six options put forth were as follows:

  • Cottage Farm School: Adjacent to Amory woods. Site would involve taking three parcels of land through eminent domain.
  • Center Street School: Current site of two, town owned parking lots behind the Coolidge Corner Theatre, CVS and the Gap, etc.  on Center Street.
  • Village School: Site of current Stop & Shop on Harvard Street.  Involved mixed use concept – school on top and new Stop & Shop below, for example.
  • Walnut Street School: Site of Old Lincoln School and U-Haul location on Rt. 9.
  • Harvard Street School: TJ Maxx site and adjacent parking lot on Harvard Street.
  • Isabel School: Site of current maintenance structures for Department of Public Works and Building Department near Avon Street on Larz Anderson Park grounds. Site does not involve using actual park green space.

Neil Wishinsky, Chairman of Selectmen, said, “The Cottage Farm School and Isabel School sites were the ones that bubbled to the top and seemed to make the most sense and were most in-line with Brookline’s educational ‘values’.  Further due diligence could easily knock one or both of these sites out of the running.  By the same token, new information could make us take another look at one of the other options presented. “

Why, after so many years of flat to modest enrollment growth at the K-8th grade level, has Brookline ended up in this place where building an entirely new elementary school appears to be the best solution to address dramatically surging enrollment?

A Numbers Issue: Dire Data

Future enrollment projections are sobering.  It is predicted that over the next five years entering kindergarten classes in the Brookline public schools will average 630 students (or higher).  This means that graduating classes at Brookline High School, which are typically around 500 students, will increase to well over 600.  Overall, this represents 12% growth within the public school system over the next five years.

Currently, the system is trying hard to manage the surge in students.  In 2005, enrollment in K-8 sections was 3,888 and it has surged to over 5,300 students today.  This increase has resulted in the addition of 56 sections of students in the last ten years.  One must remember that every time a new section is added, more pressure is placed on common space areas at schools such as cafeterias, libraries, and playgrounds, as well as support facilities and human resources.

There is no one factor driving this rapid growth.  Wishinsky commented, “There are a variety of things at play to create the situation we have today.  It has been a bit of a ‘perfect storm’ here in Brookline.  There has certainly been a bit of generational turnover where empty nesters are selling to young families.  One cannot underestimate the impact of demographic and sociological changes.  More young families today are embracing an urban lifestyle and choosing to live closer to the city rather than moving out to the suburbs.  Brookline has always been known for its good schools and close proximity to Boston.”  Property values have also played a role.  As they have risen, new units have been created and/or properties have renovated to increase their number of units.

A Longer Term Solution

The Brookline School Population and Capacity Exploration Committee, or “B-SPACE”, was established in early 2013 and tasked with generating a series of recommendations to the Brookline School Committee to address rising enrollment.  In September 2013, B-SPACE delivered its final report, which essentially recommended the strategy of “expand in place”; specifically outlining classroom expansion plans for Devotion, Driscoll and Lawrence School, as well as Brookline High School.  B-SPACE was a citizens committee made up of members from the School Committee, Advisory Committee, Board of Selectmen, Building Commission, as well as school parents, administrators and staff.

“Many of the B-SPACE recommendations have already or are currently being implemented, such as plant additions and renovations, using modular classrooms, and moving BEEP classrooms out of many of the public schools.  The additional classroom space produced is still below what is needed to meet enrollment projections. We have been forced to go ‘back to the drawing board’ so to speak, and explore other options.” said Neil Wishinsky.

The final report of the Override Study Committee from August 2014 opened the conversation for building a ninth elementary school in Brookline.  “Expand in place” was proving to be an expensive and inefficient stop-gap strategy.  Civic Moxie was brought in to identify potential locations within Brookline for the new school, several of six sites which they presented on October 22 involved using the town’s eminent domain powers to acquire privately owned property.

Funding

No funds were allocated for building a ninth elementary school in the spring 2015 Brookline budget and debt exclusion override.  “To pay for the project, regardless of what site is ultimately selected, the town would have to vote in favor of another debt exclusion and operating override.  There would be funds from the MSBA, but they would not be enough to cover the whole thing,” commented Neil Wishinsky.

Cost estimates for the various sites have not been given out to the public.  Many of the sites come with unique expenses and potential revenue opportunities.  And some, of course, could have added litigation, displacement and opportunity costs associated with potential land acquisition.  Stakeholders believe that more due diligence is needed around costs and a host of other factors before moving forward with final site selection and voting.

Timeline

In the coming weeks, there will be a number of additional meetings to inform the public on potential sites for a ninth elementary school, as well as the planning and approval process for such a project.  The public is encouraged to attend upcoming open houses and public hearings to learn more and get any questions they may have answered:

Thursday, November 12: Town Hall, 5th Floor School Committee Room, 7-9 am
333 Washington Street
Open-House Format

Thursday, December 3: Location and time TBD
333 Washington Street
Public Hearing Format

More information on upcoming meetings can be found at www.brooklinema.gov.

The Board of Selectmen and School Board are aiming to choose a final site by January 2016 in order for Brookline to be able to make a funding request to MSBA and to seek funding through a debt exclusion at the polls in 2017.  A town meeting on this topic could be slated for as early as spring 2016.  The earliest possible date for the opening of the new school would be 2020.

Moving Forward

No one can predict the future, but all signs do point to public school enrollment continuing to escalate in Brookline for the foreseeable future.  There are some who even suggest that if and when Brookline does build a ninth elementary school it will be at or very near capacity on opening day.

What is certain is that the road to secure community buy-in and the proper funding for such a building project will be long and undoubtedly winding.  At this  point in the process, it is clear that more intelligence needs to be gathered to not only further vet the site options, but also provide the public and town officials with additional analysis on traffic and environmental impact, etc.

In conclusion, rising enrollment may be a luxury problem in an odd way for Brookline public schools, but it is a problem nonetheless.  As Brookline has built a strong reputation for educational excellence, more families have naturally chosen to move to the community to take advantage of its great schools and educators.  We are now at a tipping point and if a sensible solution is not reached soon, most logically through the addition of a ninth elementary school, the essence and personality of Brookline could quickly and dramatically change.

~ Casey Hassenstein