Residents to decide the future of Pierce School in upcoming vote


(ELEANOR BERGSTEIN/CYPRESS STAFF) Unit A of the Pierce School. Over ten classrooms and over two hundred students occupy this space, with most classrooms divided by bookshelves or other makeshift dividers. The space also holds the library (pictured in the center) on the first floor, various offices and learning spaces and reading nooks.

Brookline voters will help decide the future of one of the town’s eight K-8 public schools, the John Pierce School, during the May 2 town election. The current school is composed of two buildings: one originally built in 1855 and the much larger main building, which opened in 1974.

For several years, the community has discussed what have been widely recognized as necessary improvements to the Pierce School. The main building was built in an unusual style, with an open plan in the main wing. In this wing, called Unit A, over 240 students share one large room with various floors and staircases that make the space unlike any other school in the district.

According to Massachusetts State Representative Tommy Vitolo, the school’s current facilities are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. The open plan creates problems for students with learning differences such as hearing impairments or attention difficulties. The building lacks enough ramps and elevators to make it easily accessible for students in wheelchairs or on crutches. Since the building’s inception, several students have moved to different Brookline schools because Pierce has not been able to accommodate their needs.

Many in the town agree that Pierce needs to be updated so it can meet accessibility standards and the needs of all students. The ensuing debate has been over how best to achieve these goals.

The Pierce School Building Committee (PSBC), composed of School Committee members, town representatives, various experts and administrators, met for several years to review various plans to renovate the Pierce School. They set forth their official recommendation for the redesign of the Pierce School in a plan that includes the full demolition of the main building and a complete rebuild. The proposed plan has a total estimated cost of $211,915,958.

The town applied for funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which has granted a Maximum Total Facilities Grant of up to $37,839,511. According to the grant letter, the town has until May 30 to receive local approval of the project to receive this state funding.

Brookline voters are being asked on Question 1 on May 2 whether they will support a budget exclusion for the rebuilding of the Pierce School. Because of the potential state funding and $2 million already allocated by the town for the project, the Yes For Brookline Campaign— which has been advocating for residents to vote ‘yes’ on the first two ballot questions— estimates that town residents will be asked to fund about $174 million of the project. If the project passes on May 2, Brookline property taxes would be raised for a finite amount of time to allow the town to pay for the school.

The Spend Smart Brookline Campaign Chair, who requested to be kept anonymous in this story, said the cost of the project is unnecessarily high and a cheaper project could meet the school’s needs in a way that is less demanding for Brookline residents.

“In terms of the impact that this kind of cost has on the cost of living, on renters, on middle class people, on seniors on a fixed income, I believe that Brookline believes itself to be inclusive and committed to being welcoming to all kinds of people. But, I see that these very elaborate, very large school building projects are making us more elite and less inclusive,” the Spend Smart Campaign Chair said.

According to PSBC Co-Chair and School Committee member Helen Charlupski, the proposed plan, called 3b-H, was selected by the committee because it met their goals in the most cost efficient way.

Yes For Brookline Campaign Manager Jeff Rudolph said the three main goals that should be met by all Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) are that they are the right size, that they meet standards for accessibility and that they meet state education goals.

“Pierce doesn’t meet any of those three criteria. It’s four sections in enrollment, but it’s only three sections in size. It’s completely inaccessible. If you have a wheelchair or you have crutches, there’s a huge percentage of the school that you just can’t get to. And then the final part is Unit A, that open concept model built in 1974. The state no longer supports that as a model because there’s just too many challenges. And furthermore, there are other kids with other disabilities like a hearing disability that just can’t hear in that space,” Rudolph said.

The PSBC reviewed at least six versions of a Pierce redesign including, at minimum, renovations to some of the building’s units and, at most, an entire redesign including the historic building. For a breakdown of why other options were rejected in favor of 3b-H, visit pages 7-25 of this FAQ put together by the PSBC.

Spend Smart Brookline Treasurer John Bassett said a project that is more similar to Option 1 would meet the needs of the Pierce School at a much lower cost with a reduced impact on the environment. He said there is a large environmental toll when completely demolishing a building and then removing and transporting all the materials. From his background in architecture, he said the building has merit for being so one-of-a-kind.

“What we need is an adequate school that does this job as quickly as possible, as inexpensively as possible and with as little environmental impact as possible,” Bassett said.

In Option 3b-H, the new Pierce School would include an underground geothermal system and, according to the PSBC FAQ, would be fossil fuel free once completely built. If the project comes in under budget, then the town will consider adding photovoltaic panels.

Renovations such as that proposed in Option 1 would resolve some of Pierce’s most pressing issues, including the bridge that is currently used to cross School Street to get to Pierce Park for recess. Every day, each student climbs several flights of stairs, crosses the bridge, then comes back down the stairs on the other side.

“If you are unable to climb two and a half flights of stairs, you have to walk all the way to the intersection with Cypress Street or all the way to the intersection with Aspinwall Street, cross there and walk all the way back. If you’re the kind of person who can’t do a couple of flights of stairs, that probably feels like a long walk,” Vitolo said.

The town had a study conducted about School Street traffic patterns to analyze how best to get students from the school to the park. Part of the Pierce redesign would include replacing the bridge with a raised crosswalk and speed bumps so that everyone crosses at ground level.

According to Rudolph and Vitolo, part of the reason they believe a complete rebuild is necessary is because of the many challenges posed by the land Pierce School occupies. The school sits on top of a large parking garage that is partially owned and used by the school and otherwise used by town employees. Changes to the school will affect the garage underneath. Almost $10 million of the proposed project budget would be allocated to rebuilding the garage. The school’s location also poses a challenge, surrounded by other buildings including Town Hall and the Brookline Public Library that give construction projects little flexibility.

The proposed rebuild of Pierce School is planned to take about three and a half years, beginning in February 2024 and with the new school opening in September 2027. During that time, Pierce students would be transported via buses to other locations in the town. Grades K-5 would be at the Old Lincoln School and grades 6-8 would be at Newbury College facilities on Fisher Hill, according to Rudolph.

Bassett said the amount of time the project would take is another reason he believes residents should vote ‘no.’

“Four years is a long time, and as a builder, I know that jobs seldom are shorter. Four years could easily become five,” Bassett said. “It’s [four years of] getting the kids out there at 7:30 a.m. and getting them on buses.”

Pierce School would be the next in a series of Brookline schools to undergo renovation. The newly renovated Florida Ruffin Ridley School was completed in 2018. In May 2018, a budget exclusion passed to fund the $206 million renovation and expansion of the high school. In 2019, residents approved a $115.3 million debt exclusion to fund the Driscoll renovation. The new Driscoll is set to open in the fall.

According to Yes For Brookline and its supporters, Pierce needs serious updates and it needs them now. If Question 1 does not pass this year, it would take years for another version of a redesign to make its way back to the ballot, and it is possible that the district would lose the MSBA funding assistance, according to Charlupski.

Vitolo said a complete rebuild that is approved this year would be the best option for residents.

“I want to spend the least amount of money possible in the long run to have the best learning experience for our dollar. Unquestionably, that’s yes on Pierce in May. If we wait, if we vote no, that [MSBA funding of over $30 million] goes away. We have to get back in line. If we’re lucky, we get the money five years from now. Well, what do you think construction costs look like five years from now?” Vitolo said. “So voting yes on question one, on May 2, provides the most fiscally responsible option for ensuring accessibility, equity and an educational experience appropriate for kids in Brookline Village in the 2020s.”

According to Spend Smart Brookline, a ‘no’ on Question 1 means a different renovation plan that is cheaper in the near future. The site of the school has already been studied extensively and is well-understood, so a different project plan would not be starting from scratch, the Chair of Spend Smart said.

“I wouldn’t oppose this if I didn’t believe and know that, of course, something else can happen. And something else can happen that’s awesome, whether it’s renovation with a fabulous new addition, or whether it is demolishing the building and building something new, but something more modest and, to my mind, more reasonable and responsible,” the Chair of Spend Smart said. “I want money going into the schools, but I want money going into teaching, learning and into paying the teachers who work in these buildings. I just see an imbalance.”

In-person early voting began on Saturday, April 22. The townwide election day is Tuesday, May 2. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information on the election and how or where to vote, go to:

For more information on the Pierce School Building Committee’s process, visit: