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Facing shortfall on schools, Brookline eyes override options

BROOKLINE — With school officials predicting a huge budget shortfall over the next several years due in large part to a 35 percent increase in elementary school enrollment, the Board of Selectmen held a public hearing last week to allow voters to sound off on three multimillion-dollar override options the board is considering.

At the Tuesday morning session at Town Hall, support for the overrides, one of which will be placed before voters at the May Town Meeting, was overwhelming, with most residents who spoke endorsing the highest-priced of three options being considered. Many of the speakers cited school crowding, continued racial diversification of students and staff, and improving technology as their motivations.

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According to School Superintendent Bill Lupini, enrollment numbers for kindergarten through eighth grade jumped by 1,200 students from fiscal 2004 through 2014, requiring an additional 37 class sections across the elementary schools.

Most of the support Tuesday was for a plan presented by Ken Goldstein, selectmen chairman. His plan recommends an $8.95 million override that would bring a 4.9 percent tax increase, or a roughly $526 annual hike for the owner of a median single-family home in town, $160 for a condominium owner, or $1,151 for a commercial property.

“I have no reason not to believe the needs as laid out by the School Department,’’ Goldstein said. “So my plan is based on giving the school administration what they’re asking for. And this amount will allow for approximately 100 new full-time employees — teachers and support staff like guidance counselors — not to mention technology.”

Selectman Neil Wishinsky’s plan calls for an $8.13 million override – a 4.5 percent tax bump, or a $478 bump for a single-family home, $145 for a condo, and $1,046 for a commercial property.

Selectwoman Nancy Daly’s $8.195 million plan is virtually identical to Wishinsky’s but tacks on an additional $65,000 for snow clearing equipment, and thus a few more dollars to tax bills.

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Before a packed hall, one person after another took to the microphone and lauded Goldstein’s plan, calling higher taxes a small price to pay to maintain quality, increase diversity, and reduce crowding in the public school system.

Alya Guseva, a Boston University economic sociologist who has two children in the Brookline public schools, said that she was backing Goldstein’s plan because she thought schoolchildren are owed the most resources available and that the resources are necessary for continued racial and ethnic diversification among students and workers.

“Brookline cannot compromise on the quality of public education in the town. It is what attracts people to Brookline; it also reflects the values of our community,’’ said Guseva.

“Sufficiently funding the school budget needs means continuing to fund the Metco program, so that’s a positive effect on student body diversity.’’

About 300 Boston students currently attend Brookline schools through the program.

Town Meeting member Mariah Nobrega insisted that “fully funding the override” was the right choice for selectmen.

“It’s the only way to address budget and academic shortfalls with the extreme growth we’ve seen in student enrollment,” Nobrega said. “Further, this would ensure that we continue to invest in both the people and technology that will bring Brookline schools fully into the 21st century.”

Schools, however, were not at the forefront of every speaker’s mind.

Arlene Mattison, president of Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, said that while she has vocally supported school spending for decades, she questioned whether overrides will ever be enough to overcome operating budget shortfalls, as long as Brookline continues to allow nonresident students to enroll in the district’s schools.

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Nevertheless, Mattison lamented the possibility that a failure to pass an override could result in the closure of parks.

Linda Olson Pehlke, a condominium resident, said she was concerned that the override options were too narrow and didn’t take into consideration the number of renters in Brookline who would be hurt by tax increases passed on to them by landlords.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Goldstein said selectmen are likely to vote on which override option to recommend to residents on Feb. 3.

“After that it will be out of our hands and the politics will begin,” he said. “My belief though, is that we have to support the schools as much as we can.’’

At the May Town Meeting at which Brookline residents will face the override question, they will face another question on whether to approve a debt exclusion for either $44.57 million or $49.87 million to cover the cost of rebuilding and expanding the Devotion School.

The former would increase property taxes for 25 years by an additional 1.7 percent yearly, meaning increases of $186 for single-family homes, $57 for condos, and $405 for commercial properties.

The latter would mean an additional 1.9 percent increase for the same time period, or hikes of $208, $63, and $454, respectively.

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James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.