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Ballot question puts Pierce School’s future to a vote

April 19, 2023  Updated April 29, 2023 at 6:08 p.m.
  • Signs remind students of the Pierce Volume Scale, which runs from 0 for "voices off" to 5 for "emergency voice." Photo by Clare Ong

When Brookline voters head to the polls on May 2, they’ll have the future of the Pierce School on their ballots.

Question 1 asks voters whether to raise property taxes by around 4.5 percent to finance the town’s share of a $212 million razing and rebuilding of Pierce, which currently serves around 700 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in Brookline Village.

The ballot also includes the town’s request for a separate tax hike to fund operating expenses, which Brookline.News will cover tomorrow.

Built in 1970s

There’s broad agreement that Pierce needs to be updated. Built in the 1970s in the same concrete-walled, Brutalist style as Boston City Hall, Pierce’s open-concept architecture means many classrooms lack doors or interior walls. Students sometimes wear noise-canceling headphones to block distraction, says Pierce principal Jamie Yadoff, and the layout contributes to student anxiety and disruption. Signs throughout school common spaces tell students when they are entering an area that requires whispering or silence.

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Pierce, which was constructed before enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, has one narrow elevator that serves only a small section of the school. Children with permanent disabilities who live nearby are assigned to accessible schools farther from home.

Tax calculations

According to the town assessor’s office, owners of single-family homes at the median value of $2,013,950 would see their property taxes increase by $760.23 if voters approve the Pierce School question. Owners of condominiums assessed at the median value of $772,450 would see a $206.41 increase in property taxes.

Leaders of Yes for Brookline, the campaign organized by proponents of both the Pierce question and the operating override, say the time has come to address the school’s problems. They note that the town settled on its recommendation after a $2 million feasibility study that included examination of six different options for updating the school. The study marks the Pierce project’s first expenditure.

The town has until the end of May to show that it has local approval from Brookline residents in order for an agreement for $36 million in state reimbursement to go through.

On the other hand, the project’s remaining $174 million price tag and the resulting impact on property taxes have led to significant opposition. Spend Smart Brookline, leader of the “vote no” campaign, says the town did not adequately consider smaller, less expensive options.

Select board divided

Three Select Board members — Chair Bernard Greene, Miriam Aschkenasy and Michael Sandman — support the so-called debt exclusion, as do Select Board candidates Paul Warren and Arden Reamer. Select Board Vice Chair John VanScoyoc opposes it, as does the town’s advisory committee, which reviews and makes recommendations on issues that come before Town Meeting. In March, the committee voted 12-5 against the project.

Brookline has rebuilt or renovated other K-8 schools in recent years, including the expanded Ridley School which opened in 2018 and the new Driscoll School slated to open in the fall.

Taxpayers are still paying off hundreds of millions in debt on those and other school construction projects. Meanwhile, school officials are keeping their eyes on the Baker School in South Brookline, which is expected to see a surge in enrollment with the construction of hundreds of new units in nearby Hancock Village.

Pierce’s problems

Pierce houses a labyrinth of stairs that children using crutches because of an injury must scoot up and down while seated or get carried by teachers, Yadoff said.

Third, fourth and fifth grade classrooms, all lacking interior walls and doors, overlook a large, open library. Children who find Pierce’s open classrooms too distracting have transferred to other schools.

The school also suffers from water damage, birds and bats finding their way in through screenless windows, and electrical wiring that wasn’t designed with computers in mind. Extension cords snake through classrooms and down walls. “We blow circuits a lot,” said Yadoff.

The numbers

For a cost of $212 million before state reimbursement, the project would build a new school on the same property and renovate a smaller adjacent building, a historic schoolhouse that contains some classrooms. It would also build a new parking garage to replace the existing one under the school.

The $36 million in grants that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has approved for the project is subject to change in either direction after the state agency reviews and audits the town’s project costs.

That leaves $174 million for the town to fund through taxpayers, as the project currently stands. To do so, Brookline is asking to take on debt that town officials estimate would cost around $12.6 million per year over 25 years. Unlike the permanent operating override which is also on the ballot, the Pierce debt exclusion is a temporary tax increase that expires when the debt is paid off.

The town has published a calculator where residents can plug in their addresses and find the impact on their property taxes from both the Pierce debt exclusion and the operating override.

Rents would also likely increase if landlords have their property taxes hiked, opponents say.

The arguments

Supporters of the debt exclusion say they take the increased costs to taxpayers seriously, but that the project is worth it. They say delay will lead to cost increases due to inflation.

“We’ve looked at Pierce up and down, left and right to figure out a way to make it big enough for all the kids that are there, make it compliant so everyone in the community can go, and meet the state’s education requirements,” said Jeff Rudolph, campaign manager of Yes for Brookline and a Town Meeting member.

“It’s worth it for our town,” said Rudolph. “I get that it is going to cost everybody more money, but I think it helps our community overall more than the cost.”

A rendering of the proposed rebuild of the Pierce School.

Opponents of the Pierce debt exclusion say the project’s costs have ballooned untenably and that the increase in property taxes would be a detriment to the town. They say the town missed opportunities to attract a larger state reimbursement.

“Nobody’s saying do nothing. Nobody’s denying that the building has problems,” said Carolyn Thall, the chair of Spend Smart Brookline and a town meeting member. “The condition of the building is not the ballot question. The ballot question is: Do we want to spend this amount of money on this solution?”

Spend Smart has called the Pierce plan the most expensive elementary school construction project in Massachusetts history.

While it’s true that Pierce has the highest total cost of any elementary school in the current batch of Massachusetts School Building Authority projects, proponents of the ballot question say Pierce’s status as a K-8 school means that its needs are different from K-5 elementary schools in other communities. Not only might the wider grade span mean that Pierce is larger than many elementary schools, but its middle school students also need facilities such as science labs that younger students do not.

This makes the Pierce project “inherently more costly than a school with a standard elementary grade configuration or a school with a standard middle school configuration,” the Yes campaign’s website states.

And measuring cost per square foot, proponents add, elementary school construction projects underway in Wellesley and Hingham are more expensive.

Spend Smart Brookline has laid out other options that were considered earlier in the design process for the Pierce project, including a renovation with new additions. They also suggest building a new school across School Street on the site of a town park to reduce the constraints of the existing Pierce site and cut the costs and disruption of relocating students during construction.

“We feel voting no on this plan gives us the opportunity to come back with a revision,” Thall said.

Proponents argue that renovation and constructing a school on parkland are not viable.

They say the cramped Pierce site and characteristics of the existing building, including concrete interior walls, preclude making the school accessible and bringing it up to code with a partial or full renovation.

And building a new school on the park across the street, they say, would trigger a complicated and uncertain regulatory process due to a state law requiring a land swap and new park construction.

The tax burden is the other major piece of the “no” campaign’s position.

“I feel concerned about making decisions as a municipality and as an electorate that dig us deeper into being elite and exclusive,” Thall said.

If the debt exclusion is approved by voters, Town Meeting will vote on whether to appropriate funds to the project in May. Current plans would see construction start in February of 2024 and the new school open in the fall of 2027.