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Voters decided, but Pierce project opponents continue their campaign

Language classes are still cancelled for Pierce School students in grades K-3. Photo by Clare Ong
May 11, 2023  Updated May 21, 2023 at 12:42 p.m.

The fight over the Pierce School project isn’t quite over.

In the wake of voters’ narrow approval of a ballot question allowing the town to raise property taxes to rebuild the Brookline Village K-8 school, the debate has shifted to Town Meeting, which convenes later this month.

For the process to move forward, Brookline’s 255-member legislative body must approve the town’s plan to take on debt by a two-thirds majority. It’s a hurdle the body has cleared comfortably for previous school building projects, but none of those garnered as much opposition as Pierce, and the project’s opponents have moved their campaign from the ballot box to the machinery of town government.

Last week, the Advisory Committee, which gives fiscal advice to Town Meeting, voted 13-8, with one abstention, to hold off on sending along a recommendation that the town borrow money to finance the construction of the new school. The issue is on the agenda again for tonight’s committee meeting.

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Meanwhile, John VanScoyoc, the lone Select Board member to oppose the ballot question, has suggested that the majority on Election Day, 309 votes out of more than 12,000 cast, was too slim to dictate assumption of the debt.

“On the one hand, the ‘Yes’ campaign can justifiably claim ‘a win is a win,’” VanScoyoc wrote in an email newsletter earlier this week. “On the other hand, the Pierce debt exclusion just squeaked by after a hard-fought campaign by both sides, raising the question of whether 51.3% is consensus enough for an unprecedented borrowing for a school project.”

The School Committee and other supporters of the ballot question to rebuild Pierce are urging Town Meeting to follow through on what the voters decided, to pay for the town’s roughly $174 million share of the project. They’ve argued throughout the campaign that the school, with its open design and lack of accessibility, doesn’t meet modern educational needs.

Advisory Committee weighs in

The Advisory Committee is a 30-person board whose members are appointed by the town moderator. It is generally considered more conservative than Town Meeting as a whole. Its budget proposal is what will be the starting point for debate when Town Meeting kicks off in late May, although other members of Town Meeting can and likely will call for amendments.

Should the Advisory Committee’s inaction stand over the next few weeks, it would mark the first time in memory that the panel failed to recommend funding a school construction project that voters approved, according to both Advisory Committee Chair Dennis Doughty and longtime School Committee member Helen Charlupski.

The Advisory Committee includes several key figures behind the Spend Smart Brookline campaign, which advocated for residents to vote no on the Pierce School ballot question.

Carolyn Thall, Spend Smart’s chair, is a member. So is one of the campaign’s biggest funders, Stephen Reeders, who donated $6,000 to Spend Smart this spring, campaign finance records show. Three other members, Lee Selwyn, Pamela Lodish and Carol Levin, also donated to the “no” campaign.

Those committee members have continued to advocate against the project, despite voters choosing to move it forward at the ballot. All except Levin, who was not in attendance, voted to maintain the panel’s pre-election stance against appropriating funds for the project.

Thall said that she is concerned that the final cost of the project may be as much as $20 million more than the estimate given to voters, pointing to unsettled costs such as relocation for students, a geothermal energy system that’s part of the project, and the fact that recent school projects in Massachusetts have been coming in above budget.

“We have a number we’re being asked to appropriate, and a number on paper that we bring to Town Meeting, and yet we know that it may completely not be that number,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, Reeders said that he wants to push money away from the schools and toward other departments in town.

“The rubric that everything’s good if it’s for the little children is nuts. There are other people in the town with other problems, all sorts of problems. We’ve got to be fair to everyone,” he said.

Follow the voters, supporters say

Supporters of the Pierce project say that the town should follow the will of the voters.

“A majority is a majority, 50 plus one,” Select Board member Miriam Aschkenasy said to VanScoyoc at the board’s meeting on Tuesday. “Just because you don’t like the outcome doesn’t make it any less of a majority.”

Several Advisory Committee members have voiced that opinion as well. “We’re rehashing an election campaign. It’s time to move forward, it’s time to vote yes, because the voters said they want this school,” said Neil Gordon, a supporter of the Pierce ballot question.

In the past, Town Meeting has typically easily approved the appropriations for school construction projects. The final vote tally in 2019 to allocate money to build the Driscoll School was 203-13, although in that case, it took place before a special election in which voters also signed off on the project.