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Residents crowd hearing on options to expand schools

Brookline residents and officials last week confronted the stark reality of the surging student enrollment in the town’s public schools, and the potential for a tax increase that could add well over $600 to the annual bill for property owners.

At a Monday night hearing that drew about 250 people, some audience members wore green shirts as a show of opposition to a plan that would use a portion of Amory Park as the location for a new school.

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Looking out at the green shirts, the Board of Selectmen’s chairwoman, Betsy DeWitt, announced that town officials are aware of the value of the north Brookline park, and of the desire by residents to keep it as a recreational resource.

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

The committee is considering a number of alternatives for creating new classroom space, but each option has potential problems, such as cost, location, or parent and community opposition.

School officials say they have to find a way to accommodate the system’s increasing student population; the total number has jumped by about 25 percent since the 2004-2005 school year, according to district reports, with especially sharp growth in the early grades, and the trend is expected to continue.

Some sites under consideration for a new elementary school have been criticized as being too far from where students live, DeWitt said, and the town does not own any property in more convenient areas. The concept of expanding the district’s vacant Lincoln School on Route 9 has drawn considerable opposition from parents who say the building is too outdated to be suitable for a modern facility.

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Finding more classroom space to prevent overcrowding at Brookline High School is proving an equally difficult task, officials said.

As the town scrambles to find a solution, the likely price tag for creating additional classroom space is beginning to come into focus.

Between construction costs and staff and operating expenses, B-SPACE member Michael Sandman said, the various options under B-SPACE consideration would entail a property tax increase ranging from 6.7 percent to 9 percent, and require asking residents to approve a Proposition 2½ override.

“The least that we can expect to be asking for in an override to fund all of this is somewhere around a 6.7 percent increase in taxes,’’ which for a single-family home with the town’s median assessed value, $1,071,750, would be about $670 a year, Sandman said.

He said it would be difficult to get the majority of the town’s voters to support an override that would increase their property taxes by 9 percent.

A separate committee, to be cochaired by Selectman Richard Benka and School Committee member Susan Wolf Ditkoff, is being formed to study the override question, including how large an increase would be needed to pay for the school projects.

Brookline recently expanded its Runkle and Heath schools, and is planning a $90 million project to renovate and expand 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 Brookline High campus may not be able to accommodate all of its students.

Interest in the options was high Monday, as the crowd for the B-SPACE meeting filled the selectmen’s hearing room in Town Hall as well as a room one floor below, where it was simulcast on television.

DeWitt laid out the options the town is considering for adding classrooms for its students in kindergarten through Grade 8. In addition to considering the southwest corner of Amory Park, where a baseball diamond now sits, as the site for a new school, she said, the committee is looking at a location behind the Baldwin School in Chestnut Hill, which houses some special education and preschool classes, even though most of the students do not live in that part of town.

Using the old Lincoln School remains on the table, DeWitt said, and the town is also exploring whether there is room to expand several of the existing K-8 schools instead of building a new facility.

Among the options for resolving the high school’s impending space crunch, she said, the study panel is considering whether to expand the building and do away with one of its gyms; renovate the former Lincoln School for use as an extension of the campus; or acquire land on Cypress Street for an expansion project. A more expensive option would be to build a new high school for about $72 million, according to the committee, with the price tag not including the cost of buying property for it.

While several of the options on the table have drawn opposition from the community, said Alan Morse, the School Committee’s chairman and cochairman of the B-SPACE panel, once an option is chosen it will need broad support to gain the approval of voters for 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.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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