Update: The other side of the argument for Baldwin location
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In response to the Sagamore’s Q&A with Superintendent Andrew Bott and Susan Wolf-Ditkoff, the Sagamore was made aware that the issue of the Baldwin location has sparked a lot of debate in the town.
The Baldwin location was selected in October 2016 to be the location of the new elementary school building by an 8-6 vote by members of the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee. The decision, however, is increasingly debated.
Many of the advantages are also perceived as disadvantages. Residents around Baldwin want to raise awareness about the problems of building a new school in the area in hopes of reversing the decision. The final vote will be for the 240 elected officials, Town Meeting members, who represent each of the 16 districts in Brookline, to finalize the budget for the project.
Richard Nangle, Precinct 15 Town Meeting member, who represents the area in which Baldwin is located, is one of the residents leading the cause of derailing the building of the school.
“Baldwin would not be a walkable school: that’s why it’s a bad idea. Some of the other reasons could be overlooked if it were a walkable school. But that, combined with it being one of most traffic-heavy areas in town, is why it is a bad idea,” Nangle said.
Jane Pinto, the director of the Brookline School Staff Children’s Center, a daycare for the children of the Brookline Public Schools staff which currently resides on the Baldwin property, said she went to Town Meeting before October to express her concerns about the displacement of the day care center if Baldwin were to be chosen.
“We were all hoping it wouldn’t be Baldwin. When we learned Baldwin was one of the options in September, I spoke at a public hearing and tried to get our voice out there about the importance of this program to the teachers in this town,” Pinto said. “The public meeting that I went to, there were so many people speaking in opposition to the Baldwin site that I was surprised when the Baldwin site was chosen.”
According to Nagle, one of the most concerning aspects of the project, specifically for the taxpayers, is the estimated $95 million project and the town’s refusal to accept state funding.
“There is state funding available for school building projects with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which the town has decided not to pursue so they don’t have to be told what to do by the MSBA,” Nangle said.
According to the head of the School Committee Susan Wolf-Ditkoff, the MSBA was not very likely to give the town funds for the project.
“The Board of Selectmen, the Advisory Committee and the School Committee all voted unanimously to move the ninth school and high school projects forward without a plugin for MSBA funding because we got a very clear indication from the MSBA that while the Devotion project is still ongoing, they would not provide funds for another project,” Ditkoff said. “All three committees each voted independently to move forward without participation from the MSBA. The consequence would have been waiting another two years, without any urgency. Given the state of other towns around Massachusetts it is likely that we would not have gotten their support at all.”
Ditkoff said that the budget will be set so that voters will be aware and able to vote on the debt exclusion to fund the project. In this way, she said, voters will be able to weigh in on whether the project is a priority for the town.
“The preliminary cost estimates that I saw were between 85-95 million range, but we don’t have any final costs yet. For sure we will have a budget for the project before this goes to voters,” Ditkoff said.
Another main concern surrounding the Baldwin site is traffic.
Diagnostics run by Vanasse & Associates, Inc., which were paid for by the town, reviewed transportation in the Elementary School Selection study. The conclusion in this summary was that the Baldwin location is the worst option in regards to traffic, according to a Brookline Traffic Memo written in October 2016 that evaluated Baker (advantageous) Baldwin (very disadvantageous- disadvantageous with expanded option of access from Soule) and the Village site (disadvantageous).
According to Ditkoff, traffic is a concern all over Brookline, as well as in every school site.
“We have to understand that if we want to put a school near where the students are then that means that there is going to be traffic there as well,” Ditkoff said. “We all appreciate that traffic is one of the most important concerns of this site, but number one: traffic is a concern at all of the sites, including a number of our current sites, and number two: there were many many other considerations that were complicated or problematic to the other sites that we took into account as well.”
Other disadvantages brought up by Nangle include the destruction of a park, trees and layout created by Frederick Law Olmsted.
The displacement of Winthrop House and the daycare for children of teaching staff in Brookline is another consideration.
“I’ve been told that there is going to be an effort made to find a space for our program and the Winthrop House but that’s all I know,” Pinto said. “I don’t know where that space may be.”
Pinto’s concerns about the new school in the Baldwin space primarily involve the daycare’s place in the plans.
“I’m concerned because moving a childcare center is a hard thing to do, and I’m concerned about what the new space and its outdoor space would look like,” Pinto said. “The beautiful field is incredibly important and well used by our program. Our kids go outside everyday for hours a day. Those are concerns I have which I have expressed and hopefully I’ll have some sort of say.”
Ditkoff is aware of the importance of the daycare currently at Baldwin and the School Committee is considering its placement within all the moving parts of the growth of the town.
“The daycare is in the mix, which has a number moving parts in terms of growth- classroom needs, BEEP(Brookline Early Education Program) classrooms, office spaces that are in rentals- so it’s certainly in the mix in terms of how we’re thinking about the town’s space needs overall,” Ditkoff said.
The Winthrop House, according to Ditkoff, will be part of the high school’s expansion project.
“The Winthrop House program is incredibly important to the Public Schools of Brookline and the future of the program is part of the high school building and expansion project because it is a high school program that happens to be housed at Baldwin,” Ditkoff said.
There would also be an increase of taxes to support the project, as well as the complications of overturning Article 97, a state law that protects park land. It would require full support from the Brookline Parks and Recreation department, a ⅔ majority vote from the Town Meeting members and then a ⅔ majority vote by Massachusetts legislature.
Ditkoff said that there are many types of different legal restriction on parts of the Baldwin site.
“Some are owned by the school, some are owned by the park, some have article 97 protection, there are a variety of different restrictions. It’s a complicated legal question, and part of this feasibility study is to understand only the legal status of all these things,” Ditkoff said. “I’m delighted that the parks staff, Town Council, the town and the schools are all working together to pull that apart and find the best solution.”
There is also the issue of redrawing the districts/and school lines. Ditkoff does not believe that information will be finalized before the town residents vote.
“The way that we assign students to schools is a complicated formula, so what we are going to do is launch a student assignment analysis committee that’s going to go through the data: where current students live and where there is anticipated growth and new development,” Ditkoff said. “For example, some pieces involve geography and walkability but there pieces of the analysis involve low income status of students for example. We’ve laid a memo in the analysis that we’re going to do when we decide the students’ boundaries. I have not heard from anybody that process is going to be finished by the time it goes to voters, but it’s because it’s a very thoughtful, complicated process to ensure equity across our buildings.”
A commission paid for by the town in 2013 called Brookline School Population and Capacity Exploration (BSPACE) took a look at all the land in Brookline with the mentality of expanding in place. Their conclusion was to expand Baker and Heath (found under 1.3 B-SPACE recommendations, p. 8-9), a plan Nangle would like to go back to.
“Stop this thing right now and go back to the Baker School,” Nangle said. “That’s where the kids are, that’s where the growth is, that’s where there is room to build.”
According to Ditkoff, the BSPACE analysis was conducted before taking into account growth and new housing developments in South Brookline.
Pinto acknowledges that there is no perfect space for the new school and that not everyone will get what they want.
“There really aren’t any good choices so something does have to give,” Pinto said. “I understand that the neighbors here are saying it’s too small of a space and the traffic concerns are significant. I think everyone has a valid point of view; I just don’t know if there’s an answer that’s going to appease everybody.”
Ditkoff said that the importance of having a ninth school is evident to everybody.
“Folks in Brookline understand that we need a ninth elementary school and potentially more. Folks also understand that the consequences of not having a ninth elementary school are really horrible for everyone in town because every school is going to suffer the effect of not having a ninth school,” Ditkoff said. “I think people also understand that the consequences of not building on the Baldwin site is that we would delay the opening of a ninth school by years.”
In order for building on the Baldwin site to begin, Town Meeting will have to approve a bond in November for the cost of the project, which will be paid off over 25 years. In a municipality, the governing board has to vote for it by a two-third margin. In the case of Brookline, this means the Town Meeting members.
Ditkoff believes this project is keeping the best interest of the town in mind.
“It’s important to keep the bigger picture of the impact on the entire town in mind while at the same time addressing the neighbor’s (of Baldwin) concerns. It’s a both/and not either/or,” Ditkoff said. “There are many points in the process where residents will have a chance to make the project better and improve it with their questions, their concerns, their investments that they would like us to make to make the project better.”
Nangle is hopeful that an increase in awareness surrounding the disadvantages of the site will allow for more than one third of the members to vote no. He believes since the vote was made in October, Board of Selectmen and Town Meeting members are starting to see the negative effects of the decision that was made. Nangle believes this will result in two opposing forces: those who will dig in their heels and try to go through with the process and those who will step up and admit their mistake.
“Good leaders will call a penalty on themselves. Admit you made a mistake, shut the thing down now, pivot and do the right thing by the town residents,” Nangle said.