BRUNSWICK — Retired farmer Jean Powers spent the afternoon of May 18 sitting at the dining-room table of her Redwood Lane home, studying the town budget.
Back when they were farmers, Jean’s husband, Dick, who sat in an armchair nearby, would brag that few people could harvest chicken eggs as fast as Jean. That afternoon, he bragged that no one is as meticulous or motivated as his wife, who hadn’t missed a public meeting on the budget since meetings began last winter.
Powers, 71, is a fixture at town government meetings. She is one of the most visible and regular critics of town spending – specifically, on matters involving the school system, which her two grandchildren attend. She regularly sends email about spending to a list of more than 60 people.
She isn’t alone.
The School Board has faced criticism for years, at meetings and online – notably from conservative former defense contract engineer Pem Schaeffer. He authors The Other Side of Town blog and, in 2007, sued to compel the State Board of Education to shrink funding for the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, after learning that the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station would reduce the student body.
The case was never heard, although the state reduced the funding – something Councilor Sarah Brayman attributes to Schaeffer’s pressure.
Although they’re fixtures in the town political sphere, it’s challenging to weigh the influence of people like Powers and Schaeffer in any given year.
“I don’t delude myself into thinking I influence the council,” Schaeffer said in a June 5 interview.
Powers, on the other hand, said she hopes to apply the kind of pressure that might eventually cause the town to reject its school budget, which it hasn’t done in recent history.
But a confluence of major school decisions – whether to locally finance a $28 million elementary school, and contested reductions to the School Department operating budget – have put the School Board at the center of town political debate.
Members of the board and Town Council have described this budget season as particularly contentious – that something feels different, according to school facilities Chairwoman Sarah Singer, because the town is facing critiques of school spending that are partially ideological in nature.
“We are like a microcosm of a broader political debate about the role of government and taxes,” she said in an interview June 7, noting that similar tensions exist in Maine because of conservative budget proposals from Gov. Paul LePage.
Brayman similarly acknowledged how the national “drumbeat” might heighten discussions around town spending – discussions in Brunswick that would otherwise still be fraught because of the cost of the school bond and a shortage in state subsidy faced by the town.
Ironically, Brayman, Councilor David Watson and council Chairwoman Alison Harris on Monday night said if the school budget is defeated June 13, they won’t know if it will be a consequence of a rising conservative movement or the progressives who campaigned against a budget they believe is too low after the council voted May 25 to reduce the operational budget by 0.5 percent.
As for the long-term implications for the town, some residents are taking notice.
After characterizing the School Board as the fulcrum of political divisiveness at a May 11 public hearing, Chestnut Road resident Erin Mangalam later reflected that town politics don’t bode well for the town’s future.
“If you want to attract people that are involved and committed to the town of Brunswick,” she said, “you have to speak about the schools in a way that is positive and supportive and that shows people that they are valued – that the students are valued, that the teachers are valued, and that the administrators and teachers are trusted.”
The 2011 closure of Jordan Acres Elementary School – which led to the overcrowding of Coffin Elementary School – is perhaps the best example of how distrust of the School Department has manifested and stuck.
“(A) claim I’d like to debunk is that the (School Department) lets buildings rot once it decides it wants to replace them,” Andrew Lardie, one of the primary organizers behind the new school bond, said in an email last month.
“Skeptics of this plan don’t trust our strongest evidence of Coffin, (Brunswick Junior High School and Jordan Acres) being well cared (for) – that is, public testimony from (architect) Lyndon Keck,” he said.
Lardie said people campaigning for the bond are in a position where they must “debunk” narratives that have sown suspicion about whether the town deserves the new school.
Those accusations primarily originated in 2011, when a ceiling beam in the now-closed Jordan Acres school broke, causing a temporary closure.
Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski explained Monday that the incident shed light on needed structural repairs that would cost upwards of $4 million.
“So we could no longer afford it and (it was) a poorly designed building that was built in 1971,” he said in an email – referring to JA’s open-space design, which has since fallen out of style.
The district closed the school, triggering the overcrowding at both Coffin and the newly-built Stowe elementary. Advocates for the school bond argue that Coffin students do not have adequate space, especially those who require classroom accommodations that the 60-year-old school was not designed for.
Perzanoski and Singer denied that a lack of maintenance caused the beam to crack; Perzanoski said it was a revenue shortage, not the damage from the beam, that ultimately led to the decision to close Jordan Acres.
Yet for years, and especially in the months leading up to the vote on the bond, the board has had to defend itself against that accusation.
Schaeffer, for instance, said he refuses to believe that “kids punish a building any more than constant, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year customer traffic does in the various businesses on Maine Street.”
He cited examples of buildings the same age as Jordan Acres that have been improved with less costly renovations – citations that are not unlike the dissent heard at the many public hearings on the proposed bond.
But he also acknowledged that his opinion is based on a fundamental distrust of the School Department.
He believes the department capitalized on the beam failure to request a new school – an act of political calculation greased by a “woe-is-me” attitude, and “knowing in essence what you’re doing is shaming the public” into arguing against the well-being of children.
While Singer staunchly claimed the department does proper maintenance, the School Board has voted annually to put off long-term maintenance projects to keep its budget down without cutting teacher salaries, which are protected by contracts.
Stuck between the Town Council’s request for cuts and the public’s accusations of negligence, she said the School Board is caught in a bind.
She also said Brunswick isn’t unique.
“I want people to understand if you make (ideological division) a Brunswick debate, you think on either side there are bad-faith actors,” Singer said. “I feel like the whole system’s on trial everywhere.”
She argued that Brunswick isn’t unlike other towns in the state and country that are struggling to maintain political dialogue in a climate that is increasingly wary of government.
In light of Singer’s comments, School Board Chairwoman Joy Prescott on Wednesday said she recognizes that, but doesn’t know if she’d go as far as “directly connecting” Brunswick to national and statewide sentiments.
“I think the level of engagement that we are seeing is understandable,” Prescott said, given the cost of the new school and LePage’s proposal to slash state funding.
In the future, she said, she “want(s) to make sure (conversations) are focused on specific decisions, rather than ideological positions, because I think that will help us move forward.”
Similarly, Singer acknowledged that debate over spending is healthy in a democracy – debate that might resemble the diligent emails of Jean Powers, who frequently requests line-by-line commentary on topics like teacher salaries from the superintendent of schools.
Brayman, Watson and Harris agreed Monday that many of the topics raised by conservatives like Powers and Schaeffer warrant consideration.
Though it bristled members of the School Board, the council publicly discussed the district’s competitive teacher and administrative salaries, which some, like Powers, believe are too high.
But when asked, Powers was less optimistic that simple discussion would resolve her trust issues.
“Attitude,” she said. “That is a big thing for me.”
Although her dining-room table was covered in numbered sheets and printed emails, she zeroed in on a characterization of the board as a group of well-educated residents with good jobs who have “free rein” over people like her – older people living on small, fixed incomes.
That’s why, she said, she is motivated to send her newsletters, to write op-ed pieces, and to speak out at public meetings.
“You don’t want a person that’s well-educated and has a high-paying job to walk all over people,” she said. “I may be wrong, but I’m not alone.”
Brunswick resident Jean Powers at her dining-room table, surrounded by emails, municipal and School Department documents, and her own notes. Powers, a frequent critic of school spending, nonetheless considers herself an independent political voice.
The Talent Development Enrichment program at Brunswick’s Coffin Elementary School uses an old locker room shower for lack of adequate classroom space. Locally financing a $28 million replacement for the school is one of the issues opposed by critics, including Jean Powers.