Brookline’s public relations war over school site escalates
You could be forgiven for thinking there was a dire emergency confronting Brookline, based on the number of attorneys and public relations specialists working behind the scenes on the hottest controversy in town.
In reality, Brookline and factions of its residents are engaged in a highly sophisticated fight over where to build an elementary school, a debate that will be part of a Special Town Meeting on Tuesday night.
Several big-name attorneys have been involved for a year now, including one who represents Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who is also a Brookline resident. And in recent weeks, several well-known public relations executives have been hired by various groups that want the school to be located — or not located — in this or that corner of the well-to-do town.
All at untold expense. Even by Brookline standards, this is unusual.
“We’re talking about a school; it’s not a nuclear waste dump,” said Neil Wishinsky, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “We’re talking about educating kids.”
On Tuesday, Town Meeting members will vote on a proposal that will put Brookline one step closer to choosing a site for the school. The proposal would devote $1 million to study several sites, but it will likely be months before a final decision is made.
Debate about the new school started more than five years ago, but since September the fight has heated up, making good business for the variety of advocates hired on all sides.
After town officials in late September set their sights on seizing land owned by Pine Manor College, the school’s president temporarily engaged the public relations firms of two of Boston’s most well-known operatives, Geri Denterlein and Tom O’Neill.
Several other factions of parents and neighbors working to support — or thwart — various possible school locations have their own representatives.
A group that wants the school at Pine Manor hired strategist Steve Crawford.
Another group, which opposes a school at Pine Manor, have their own attorney, who has also hired public relations specialist Conor Yunits to attend meetings, gather information, and talk to neighbors and reporters.
“I guess it goes to show you the interest people have in the site,” Wishinsky said.
The fight over where to build a school has been complicated. Officials have cycled through dozens of ideas, and most options died after resistance by neighbors or parents.
Over the months there have been thick consultants’ reports, closed-door meetings, parent petitions, colored T-shirts, accusations of Nimby-ism, PowerPoint presentations, a three-hour forum, and scores of lengthy weeknight meetings.
The town wants a new school following rapid growth in the number of young children. Elementary schools in Brookline run from kindergarten through eighth grade, and the town prefers that children are able to walk to school.
Local officials set their sights on Pine Manor College after their first choice, a site known as Baldwin, fell through. They have proposed to use eminent domain to take seven front acres of the campus, which is less than a mile from the Baldwin site.
College president Tom O’Reilly has led the resistance to that plan, helped by residents who oppose that site for various reasons. Former governor Michael Dukakis, who also lives in Brookline and is an old friend of O’Reilly, has spoken out against the town’s plan to take the land.
By coincidence, the college’s position has aligned with a group of wealthy neighbors who live near Pine Manor and the Baldwin site and oppose both, because of perceived traffic problems, among other reasons.
Those neighbors are represented by attorney Stephen Wald, who last month wrote a 91-page letter to the town explaining why both Baldwin and Pine Manor are bad locations. Yunits, who is vice president of the public relations firm Solomon McCown & Company, attends most of the public meetings about the project.
The Krafts, who live adjacent to Pine Manor College and the Baldwin site, have engaged their own attorney, Dan Goldberg, on the matter. Goldberg, known for having defended the Patriots in the Deflategate scandal in 2015, has been attending local meetings for the past year.
These groups are not the only ones maneuvering behind the scenes. A new one has formed in the past few weeks with the opposite goal. They want the school at Pine Manor.
School Committee member Julie Schreiner-Oldham is helping to organize that group, known as the Friends of the Ninth School. The group hired Crawford to help their cause by giving information to a reporter about Pine Manor’s precarious finances and raising questions about whether it might sell land to developers in the future.
O’Reilly said he is mending the school’s finances. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bought five acres from the college in 2013 but O’Reilly said it does not plan to sell more now that he is president.
Schreiner-Oldham, in a phone interview Friday afternoon, called Pine Manor an “A+” location for a school because it is near a town recreation center.
“Of the options that we have and the locations that we have to build a school, Pine Manor is great,” she said. She said the group is organized as a ballot question committee and has donors from across the town.
In addition to Denterlein and O’Neill, Pine Manor also has had other advice from public relations specialists who have offered their advice for free, according to O’Reilly.
The college also has its own attorneys. Alan Rose has worked for the school in the past, according to the president, and attorney Susan Murphy is lending pro bono help, he said.
In preparation for Tuesday, O’Reilly said he contacted all of the town’s 240 Town Meeting members and met with many of them.
“I would like Town Meeting members to exclude Pine Manor from future consideration,” he said. “I feel it’s my moral obligation to fight for the mission of the college.”
A new option has emerged in the 11th hour to building either at Pine Manor or Baldwin.
A group of parents whose children attend the Pierce School, in Brookline Village, proposed to expand that school, which they say is badly in need of repairs anyway, to accommodate many of the extra children.
One of the leaders of that movement, Mariah Nobrega, said Pierce is the best option because it will likely be a faster solution than building an entirely new school. Nobrega said the town should give as much attention to studying Pierce as it has to Baldwin and Pine Manor.
“There has to be an honest, complete study performed,” she said.