This article, written by Jake Brodsky and Kendall McGowan, originally appeared on The Sagamore, Brookline High School’s student newspaper. Brodsky and McGowan’s article was the third-place winner of NECIR’s High School Investigative Journalism Contest, and the piece is being republished here as an outstanding example of high school investigative reporting.
Where will they go?
Town struggles to find space for students amid rapid enrollment growth
December 2, 2015
Why is Brookline’s school system in need of expansion?
In recent years there have been an average of 650 students entering kindergarten town wide, according to Interim Superintendent Joe Connelly. Meanwhile, the number of students graduating the high school has been about 450. This translates to an average of 207 additional students in the system per year for the last five years. According to Connelly, between 30 and 40 students also enter the school system between grades one and 11 each year. These enrollment changes have put an increasing strain on the district’s space, budget and resources.
Connelly said that he believes the influx of new students is due at least in part to a turnover of property in the town.
“People that do not have any school age children are selling their property to people who do have school age children,” he said. “And because Brookline is such a high-performing school system, it’s a very attractive community for families with children to move into. And so as these residential properties turn over, they’re being purchased by families with school-age children, and I think that’s most likely the biggest driving force.”
Would proposed expansions to Hancock Village or other proposed building products advance the enrollment increase?
Right now there are three or four potential building projects including Hancock Village, according to Connelly. He said that in the future, these projects could lead to an enrollment growth of up to 180 more students district-wide. However, according to Chairman of the Brookline School Committee Susan Wolf Ditkoff, while these projects would certainly affect school enrollment, the decisions to approve them are made by parties such as the Board of Selectmen and the planning department, and the School Committee doesn’t have a role in the decisions.
How will the growth continue in the future?
According to Connelly, there are approximately 550-700 students in each grade kindergarten through six district-wide and about 500 in each grade seven through 12. As these large classes move up through the system, they will continue to strain the schools’ space and resources. Connelly also said that enrollment will continue to grow at an increasing rate. According to an informational flier distributed by the town, larger kindergarten classes have replaced smaller graduating classes for eight consecutive years, and projections indicate that this trend will continue for at least the next six years.
The high school
Why haven’t there been many decisions or developments regarding the high school lately?
According to Connelly and Wolf Ditkoff, the town has submitted a Statement of Interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) requesting assistance in finding and implementing a solution for the high school’s space problem. According to Headmaster Deborah Holman, a Statement of Interest allows the state to consider Brookline for a portion of a pipeline of shared funding for some of its building projects. Ditkoff said that the town is waiting to move forward with conversations about possible solutions because if the SOI is approved, the MSBA will have a role in them.
“If they do partner with us, then we would jointly proceed in terms of figuring out how to do analysis and how to involve the community in two different pieces,” she said. “One piece is just what is possible on the high school site we have, the second is what other kinds of capital we might need, and then obviously the question of whether to do that in a one-high school format or a two-high school format, or frankly kind of some hybrid option. That will all proceed once we know whether we’re doing things in tandem with the MSBA or whether we’re proceeding on our own.”
According to Wolf Ditkoff, the MSBA might fund around 30 or 40 percent of the high school expansion project, and would have a relative stake as a partner in discussions.
Although Wolf Ditkoff said that the main reason for the delay of the high school project is the MSBA decision, Assistant Headmaster Hal Mason said that little progress has been made with plans about the high school’s expansion because much of the town’s energy has gone towards a renovation of Devotion school.
“It’s possible that there would be simultaneous things going on but that requires a lot of money, so probably not,” he said. “That notwithstanding, while they’re working on Devo there will be a lot of talk about the high school; there hasn’t been recently because they’re still figuring out what the Devo solution will be and there are a number of different options that they’re looking at. Until they finalize that, that’s where most of the energy is going now.”
Holman said that she is concerned about the timing of the high school expansion planning. She said that overseeing the expansion of Newton North High School while she was vice principal there made her aware of the importance of getting the timing of decision making right.
“I worry about the timeline that we’re in right now,” she said. “I worry about the enrollment increases coming towards the high school, and I want to be completely prepared in the interim for the enrollment increase. But I’m excited about what the long-term solution is because I think it creates a lot of opportunities for BHS.”
What short term changes have been/are being made?
Until a long-term solution can be selected and implemented, the high school has found short-term solutions to deal with a shortage of space. According to Holman, one of these is that the town is renting space for programs such as early education and BEEP and will be moving them out of the high school, so more classrooms are available.
Holman also said that some class sizes have gone up, but the school has made an effort to limit these to senior classes so underclassmen can have the full focus of their teachers. However, she said that the high school is making an effort to eliminate these larger classes in the future.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to maintain our current class sizes and be able to have them get even better, actually,” she said. “There’s a new deputy of finance and administration, Deputy Superintendent Mary Ellen Dunn, and she’s working with me on looking at the number of students we have, how they sign up for courses, and if the number of teaching positions that we have actually matches how we schedule kids.”
However, Holman said that around 2019 the school will run out of classroom space. She said that when that happens, the school may either use modular classrooms or occupy the Old Lincoln School, which is currently being used as the Upper Devotion School.
How will the high school cafeteria accommodate all of these students?
According to Mason, the high school will have three lunches instead of two next year. He said that this will expand the cafeteria’s capacity by 50 percent and eliminate the 15-minute waits in line some students experience. However, he said that this will mean some classes have a half-hour break in the middle for lunch.
“Nobody loves the idea of the split class because if you have three lunches, then one class obviously has to be half hour of class, half hour of lunch, then half hour back in the same class,” he said. “Nobody loves that but there are plenty of schools that do that currently and the experience from those schools is that it’s not a terrible thing.”
The Elementary Schools
What are the options for dealing with elementary school overcrowding?
According to Connelly, a ninth elementary school is the best and most likely solution for handling the increase in elementary school population.
“All of our building place options have almost all already been utilized,” Connelly said. “And so if we’re looking at a K-8 increased enrollment of at least 550 students over the next 5 years, we project we need at least 27 additional classrooms to meet the needs of those 550 new students, and we can’t build in place more modulars or we can’t modify existing conditions to create 27 more classrooms. So at this point we believe the best option for Brookline to consider would be a ninth school, so that we can meet the needs of the kids without over-utilizing existing school space.”
Where would a ninth elementary school be built?
According to the Town of Brookline’s official website, there are six possible options on the table for the location of a ninth elementary school. The Cottage Farm School option would be set up adjacent to the Amory Woods and Park. The Isabel School would be located on the Department of Public Works shed at Larz Anderson. The Harvard Street School would be located in on the current site of TJ Maxx. The Centre Street School would be placed on the town-owned parking lots on Centre Street in Coolidge Corner. The Village School is proposed where Stop and Shop is and would also take portions of Walgreens. The Walnut Street School is where Old Lincoln currently is, but would force the town to take the U-Haul on Route 9 by eminent domain. The options are currently being debated in a series of public town meetings.
How are the current Devotion renovations being handled?
According to Connelly, the Devotion school will be expanded from a 40 classroom building to a 45 classroom one. This will allow for Devotion to go from accommodating 850 students to 1050. However, classroom renovations are just part of the project. The entire school will be enlarged to include greater Physical Education, cafeteria and Fine Arts space.
Connelly said that the town submitted an additional SOI to the MSBA for the Devotion renovation. This was separate from the high school’s SOI. According to Connelly, a district must submit an individual SOI for each building renovation they want the state to help pay for.
Due to a lack of space in the Devotion school this year, seventh and eighth graders are already occupying the Old Lincoln School, which is now called Upper Devotion. The Devotion School will go under construction for two years beginning next year, and during that time all students will be moved to other buildings. According to Connelly, grades five through eight will occupy the Old Lincoln School, and the kindergarten through fourth grades will be transferred to an eight-story building in Coolidge Corner, called the Coolidge House. The Coolidge House is a former assisted living building next to the Marriott Hotel and will be rented to serve as a temporary school, Connelly said. Having the school fully vacant will allow Devotion to be renovated and ready for reopening by 2018.
How does population overcrowding affect lunches at the elementary schools?
According to Connelly, another issue which overcrowding in schools caused is that many of the elementary schools in Brookline have up to five lunches, even before increased enrollment, because existing cafeterias lack the size to handle one-third of a school population.
“If you have 800 students and your cafeteria’s only large enough for 150 students you have to have five or six lunches,” he said. “That means that some grade levels are having lunch as early as 10:30 in the morning and some are having lunch as late as 1:30 in the afternoon. And so these construction projects that will increase the size, the capacity of the cafeterias, will also have a major beneficial effect on allowing us to go back to maybe three lunches a day, the typical 11:30 to 1:00.”
How are the other existing elementary schools adapting?
In the short term, the town of Brookline is enacting a “build in place” model. According to Connelly, they’ve added modulars and, in some schools, split spaces into two classrooms. Over the summer, four permanent classrooms were added to the Lawrence School, and Pierce rented out an additional three classrooms in a neighboring building in order to meet capacity. But these smaller changes are only temporary buffers for a problem that needs a larger solution.
How is the town paying for short- and long-term solutions to the enrollment increases?
Last year, Brookline residents voted to approve a property tax increase, which raised the operating budget of the town’s schools by $7.67 million. According to Mason, the operating budget of the high school includes the cost of supplies, heating, textbooks, maintenance, and the salaries of more than 300 staff. As the population of total students in Brookline, including both the high school and elementaries, increases, the town will be forced to expand its operating budget, which relates to the override passed earlier this year. Mason said that under “Proposition 2 ½ ,” a Massachusetts law passed in 1980 and put into effect in 1982, around the time of many Reagan-era tax cuts, property tax increases are limited to 2.5 percent. Proposition 2 ½ states that in order to raise this number, the town must vote on taking on new debt, and an override must be in effect.
Connelly said that the approval of the override covers not only a permanent tax increase, which will raise the operating budget, but also a temporary debt exclusion. According to Wolf Ditkoff, the debt exclusion is temporary in tax terms and translates to a 25 year bond. According to Mason, a debt exclusion means allowing the town to raise the debt ceiling above its current limit. He said that Brookline has good credit and is able to issue municipal bonds in order to fund a construction or renovation project like Devotion or the high school, but that there is a limit to how much the debt can be raised.
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