Brookline Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved funding for the Pierce School rebuilding project last night, putting an end to a brief but dramatic post-election debate over the school’s future.
In the end, the vote was not close: The $210 million appropriation needed a two-thirds vote and ended up getting more than 80%, passing with 197 yes votes, 34 nos and 9 abstentions.
The Brookline High School auditorium burst into applause, and School Committee members sitting in the front row hugged after the votes were tallied.
A vocal pocket of Town Meeting members, backed by the town’s fiscal Advisory Committee, had been pushing to reject the project, citing its high price tag, increased taxes for Brookline residents, and the impacts on the town’s debt.
“The process was deeply flawed. The plan is excessive. And this course of action is unhealthy and unsustainable for Brookline,” said Carolyn Thall, who led the SpendSmart Brookline campaign opposing the project.
Proponents of the project argued that a rebuild of Pierce is badly needed to meet accessibility requirements and move away from the open design that they say presents challenges that can harm students’ ability to learn.
“Pierce is an outstanding school. But that is in spite of our building, and not because of it,” Pierce Principal Jamie Yadoff said on Tuesday night.
Brookline voters had previously agreed to raise property taxes in order to fund the town’s $174 million share of the project, although the ballot question only passed by a few hundred votes out of 12,000.
The town can now move forward with its plans to start demolition of the current Pierce school next year.
Currently, the plan is to start moving students out during February vacation in 2024. The first steps will be demolition of the existing building and beginning to build geothermal wells that will provide heating and cooling for the new school system.
The town is free to start issuing bonds for the project now, but likely will not do so until roughly a year from now when construction starts on the project, according to School Committee member Helen Charlupski.
There are many details left to hash out, including getting a final bid for the project, which opponents have warned could balloon higher than the initial price tag. School officials also must finalize a plan for relocating students during the three-year construction project.
Campaign finance shadow
One other unresolved piece of the Pierce campaign is an alleged campaign finance violation by school officials which is under review by state and town officials.
Former Town Counsel Joslin Murphy alleged in a complaint to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance that emails sent out to thousands of parents by Brookline Schools Superintendent Linus Guillory and other school officials containing information about the ballot questions were an illegal use of taxpayer funds to distribute election information.
It will likely be months before the OCPF weighs in, if at all, but the town is moving forward with its own investigation as well.
Town Administrator Charles Carey wrote in a memo this week that the complaint shows that town employees failed to avoid the appearance, at least, of a conflict of interest.
“That’s very disappointing,” he wrote.
Even if the emails weren’t illegal, they “clearly had an impact [on] the trust we all continually try to build and maintain with the public,” his memo says.
Carey said in addition to the town’s investigation, he is planning to “work collaboratively with PSB to ensure that this outcome is not repeated.”