Many residents are unsure where things stand in the ongoing planning process for building a ninth K-8 school in Brookline. This is understandable, given the effort has been going on for a number of years and has involved many town meetings, varying strategic recommendations, and strong emotions on all sides. The following aims to provide clarity around the status of the plans for a ninth elementary school to date.
The Board of Selectman (BOS), the Brookline School Committee (BSC) and the Advisory Committee voted to further study three potential sites for a new elementary school. These sites include the Village School (Stop & Shop site) in Brookline Village, the Baldwin School in Chestnut Hill, and the Baker School Site on Beverly Road in South Brookline.
As many have noted, these sites are different from the two sites that were put forth in the fall of 2016 as seemingly the most promising and favorable: Cottage Farm and Larz Anderson Park.
“After further due diligence, both of these locations were ruled out,” said Neil Wishinsky, Chairman of Selectmen. “Local historic restrictions in the Cottage Farm area made having a footprint large enough for a school nearly impossible., and legal restrictions associated with earlier federal grants ruled out Larz Anderson. So, we went back to the drawing board and came up with the three finalist site locations. We made sure to have at least one site option that would support South Brookline.”
With $800,000 in funds set aside by the Town of Brookline, Jonathan Levi Architects (JLA) was hired in the spring of 2016 to conduct a Site Selection Study on these three final locations. This study will provide additional data for each potential site around accessibility, environmental impact, traffic patterns, sustainability and costs.
“Our hope is that JLA will help us determine if each site is actually feasible to build a school on and, at a very high level, what that school might look like,” stated Wishinksky. A separate interdepartmental team will further assess eminent domain issues, public feedback, and changing demographics.
Jonathan Levi Architects are due to share its preliminary findings on July 26. Its final study is due to be completed by early September and will be shared and discussed with the BOS and BSC in a joint meeting on September 8.
The public will be updated on the findings and will have ample time to weigh in and voice support, as well as concerns about the site conclusions. During September and October there are expected to be two open house meetings, a public hearing and numerous ongoing meetings with neighborhood associations and community groups.
A joint BSC/BOS public meeting a final site for a ninth elementary school in Brookline will be selected on October 16. Construction for this new school would begin in October 2018 and the school would open in September 2020.
The Three Finalists
Village School Site (Stop & Shop / Harvard Street)
Under this option, the town would be required to lease or buy the land, which is now the Stop & Shop grocery store, and perhaps the gas station and car wash adjacent to the property.
There has been concern in the community over whether this option would involve closing the Stop & Shop.
“All four town selectman have stated publicly that they will not consider this site without the Stop & Shop in it in some way – either on its own or incorporated into a new mixed-use facility together with a school,” said Wishinsky. “Given this, it is highly unlikely that this site would be chosen if it meant the Stop & Shop closing its doors.”
One advantage for this site is that it would not require taking existing open land or green space away from the town. It would also present some unique and potentially exciting opportunities from an urban planning and architectural design perspective.
Baldwin School / Soule Recreation Center
This location would involve building a school on the land nestled between the Baldwin School and Soule Recreation Center in Chestnut Hill. The land is build-ready and would be able to support the South Brookline area. The location, however, would be less walkable than many current elementary schools in Brookline and additional student transportation needs and resources would have to be considered.
Baker School Site / Beverly Road
Potential ideas around this site would include building a new school next to Baker School or the existing Baker School could be significantly renovated and expanded to support a dramatic increase in students. Currently, the Baker School is the most overcrowded K-8 school in Brookline and there is not another elementary school close by to reduce this enrollment pressure.
“All of these sites come with positives and negatives,” said Wishinsky. “Some are going to be easier to build upon than others; some will require more creative and open-minded thinking when it comes to design. I am confident that the right issues and concerns are being thought through and, in the end, we will find an option that best serves Brookline and, most importantly, our kids.”
Getting to this Point
Since 2005, Brookline public schools have seen a dramatic increase in K-8 enrollment. It is predicted that by 2020 over 700 more students will be enrolled in the existing eight, K-8 public schools in the town. Such dramatic growth will result in larger class sizes and place immense strain on existing communal facilities, such as gyms, libraries, cafeterias, and playgrounds. If the current growth trend continues, Brookline will need to add the equivalent of a K-8 school every five years to support the demand.
Up until this point, Brookline public schools have been executing an “expand in place” strategy to deal with rising enrollment. This has involved leasing classroom space at schools, moving the Brookline Early Education Program (BEEP) classrooms out of the K-8 schools to private spaces, relocating administrative offices and adding modular classrooms when possible. To date, 54 additional classrooms have been added through this strategy.
Civic Moxie, an urban design and real estate development firm, was hired in 2014 to put forth recommendations to address rising K-8 enrollment. The firm concluded in last October that “the strategies of maximizing space, re-allocating underutilized space, reducing staff space, and relocating some operations and staff off-site, have been exhausted.” In short, the firm recommended moving beyond the “expand in place” strategy and, instead, building a ninth elementary school and identified 26 possible sites in Brookline.
Since last October, there have been a number of neighborhood association meetings, open house presentations, and several joint BOS and BSC meetings to discuss adding a ninth school. Based on research and public feedback received, JLA was hired to conduct a Site Selection Study with the three finalist school sites: Village School, Baldwin School, and Baker School. It is currently in the process of performing this analysis.
Eyes on the Prize
Even though the planning process has gone on longer than many expected and, was not as linear as people hoped it would be, there is a sense that meaningful progress has been made and a site decision is close at hand.
“I have been involved in this process for three years, and we have reached a point where it is apparent that we as a community can no longer kick the can further down the road when it comes to the issue of rising school enrollment,” said Wishinsky. “Regardless of where the new school is located or what it ends up looking like, everyone is committed to making sure that it is a great school – one that upholds the high standards set by Brookline.”
Even though greatness can take time, it is clear that all stakeholders involved in this extensive process hope that a final site location is approved no later than this fall. Once this happens, it will be up to the voters of Brookline to decide if they want to fund the construction of the new school so that it would be open for students for the 2020-2021 school year.