The Brookline School Committee is considering the fairness of allowing parents of children at the Heath School to raise $1.8 million in private funds to expand the auditorium at the elementary school in affluent Chestnut Hill.
After parents whose children are not Heath students questioned the proposal, the School Committee’s chairwoman postponed a decision on the plan so that it could be considered by the board’s policy subcommittee.
“This is a major policy decision,’’ chairwoman Rebecca Stone said.
The issue has led to roiling discussion on playgrounds and filled e-mail in-boxes across town, as parents with children in other schools, which have waited more than 30 years for similar renovations, discussed whether the proposal would exacerbate inequalities between Brookline’s eight schools for students in kindergarten through Grade 8.
The Heath building is being expanded to include six new classrooms, in an attempt to ease the school system’s surge in enrollment. With the new classrooms, the school will take children from outside its usual district who otherwise would be put in overcrowded classrooms nearer to home. The project also would involve a new multipurpose room, and the renovation and enlargement of the cafeteria and gymnasium.
The Heath auditorium would see a reduction in seating, in order to meet federal accessibility standards. The state and local district officials had recommended a larger auditorium. But under the current plans the auditorium would have seats for 200, or roughly 36 percent of the projected number of students who would attend the school after the expansion.
The School Committee decided not to include an expanded auditorium in the project because the Massachusetts School Building Authority would not provide funds for it.
“That’s why we decided to raise the money,’’ said Ellen Rizika, the Heath PTO’s co-treasurer and a member of the committee exploring the auditorium fund-raising proposal.
Since January 2011, parents have met with administrators to design a 350-seat auditorium and to develop a plan to raise the needed funds. They went before the School Committee on March 1 with pledges for $200,000, and an estimate that they could reach the target cost of $1.8 million with the participation of about 22 percent of the Heath parent and alumni population.
That figure, they said, would pay for the design and building, include contingencies, and add a backstage area, a storage and maintenance area, better exits, and a much-needed bathroom.
Since the March 1 meeting, parents from other schools have sent the school board more than 30 e-mails opposing the proposal. Many also appeared at a recent meeting, arguing against the town’s accepting such a large gift and allowing the Heath community to, as some put it, buy its way to the front of the line.
“You can’t develop this proposal without a policy framework,’’ said Gioia Perugini, a Pierce School parent, citing the issue of equity.
Heath parents counter that their school has seen two small renovations in recent years, neither of which were as comprehensive as other schools have had in the meantime, and neither of which touched the auditorium. If parents can’t expand that area now, they say, it will have to wait another 30 years before the state funding agency will again authorize a renovation.
The School Committee is clearly split on the issue - a stark contrast to its normal, consensus-driven model of making decisions. The majority indicated its preference to accept the auditorium funds, while also worrying about policy and precedent.
Chairwoman Stone and committee member Amy Kershaw argued strongly for a policy first; others clearly felt that a policy could be developed simultaneously with a vote to accept the private funding.
Stone said the prospect of getting a new auditorium through private donations was appealing, but added: “I think the equity issues are stark.’’ She noted that if one class happened to have parents willing to fund a school’s technology goals, but those parents could only fund their children’s classroom, the board would easily reject that as unfair.
The public schools, Stone said, are a “collective enterprise, and we have to guard against inequitable benefits for any individual or group from the system.’’
Rizikia, the Heath PTO officer, expressed concern that a delay would increase controversy within Brookline’s school community and slow the fund-raising drive’s momentum.
Susan Wolf Ditkoff, who works with nonprofit organizations on fund-raising and other issues, outlined a series of policy questions that would need to be answered before the Heath donation could be accepted.
Her list included:
■Under what circumstances should and could the schools accept private funds?
■ Is the project a district and school priority?
■Would this project fix a glaring inequity or cause one?
■Would any of the individuals involved get personal benefit from this project?
■What are the district’s ongoing costs associated with the project?
“We have to have a policy so we do think carefully about’’ private donations, she said.
Henry Warren and Judy Meyers both noted that school projects in the town’s capital improvement plan often get deferred in favor of other projects as circumstances change.
“It’s not that I like that we have to do private fund-raising to do capital projects,’’ Meyers said. “But I would expect other schools will come forward and want to fund-raise for their buildings.’’
Alan Morse, the board’s vice chairman, agreed.
“We need to keep our eye on whether or not the proposal will benefit our educational goals and the students we have,’’ he said. “I think it does.’’
Stone said she anticipates that the policy subcommittee could finish its deliberations on the subject “no later than the end of the school year,’’ and the full School Committee would revisit the issue then.