Brunswick board, council restart school repair process

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board and Town Council met in the Coffin Elementary School cafeteria Wednesday night to discuss how to move forward after the board’s more than $12 million plan to repair Coffin and Brunswick Junior High School was rejected last month by the council.

This is about “getting on the same page,” School Board Chairman Billy Thompson said.

By the end of the three-hour meeting, the School Board decided to seek up to $2 million from the state to help pay for the most urgent repairs, and agreed it would schedule a vote at its next meeting on a schedule for a new, comprehensive project.

Both schools fail to meet basic standards for fire safety, ADA accessibility, and hazardous materials. At one point in the meeting, Facilities Director Paul Caron even informed the elected officials that there was a layer of asbestos just beneath the floor tiles under their feet.

Councilors took the opportunity to explain to board members why they had rejected the bond proposal.

“When we looked at the tax increase for the repairs,” Councilor Jane Millet said, “to me, it didn’t make sense to do that based on the fact that we’d be back in this same spot in 10 years.”

Town Finance Director Julia Henze presented projected tax impacts for multiple building scenarios involving different combinations of repairing, renovating, or rebuilding the schools.

The scenarios with the highest tax impacts involve replacing one of the schools.

School Board member Sarah Singer stressed that if they were going to move forward with a larger project involving renovations or even building a new school, they’d have to do a lot of groundwork to get residents on board.

She suggested scheduling multiple public forums for people to express their opinions on the school projects, and creating a task force with “community leaders” like the fire and police chiefs.

We need to make sure “we’ve done the work we need to pass a big bond,” she said. 

Board member Joy Prescott suggested doing a professional poll to gauge people’s “appetite” for a tax increase to fund the construction.

In the meantime, Caron presented a list of priorities that need attention regardless of whatever future plan the two bodies hammer out, including upgrading sprinkler and fire alarm systems, and removing asbestos from both schools.

The School Board authorized him to apply to the state’s revolving door renovation fund in hopes of getting a state subsidy to help with the costs. Each school could potentially receive $1 million, Caron said.

Board members and councilors also expressed a desire to maintain communication between the panels.

“I think this was a useful meeting,” Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said. “I’m glad to all be sitting in the same room.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann

A mother and daughter sit before the joint meeting of the Town Council and School Board at Coffin Elementary Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.
  • poppypapa

    Here’s an idea; cut the existing school budget by however much bonding will cost, and the net increase budget wise will be zero.

    When enrollment dropped by 20%, the budget did not go down one bit, even though they had far fewer children to educate, and three old schools were closed and replaced by one brand new efficient one.

    When your kids grow up and move out, does your grocery bill go up as a result?

    • Constant

      Here’s an idea: volunteer in our school, and actually experience what you clearly think is an overfunded system, so that you can actually know what you speak so freely of. Wait, you don’t volunteer?

      • poppypapa

        Thank you for your kind suggestion, but at my age, working with young children is a little beyond my endurance level.

        At the moment, my “voluntary” contribution is when I visit the Tax collector’s office, and pay my annual property taxes, of which the majority goes to the schools. And they generally increase by a sizable amount every year, and the majority of that increase goes to the schools as well.

        I’m guessing you and I probably don’t pay the same in taxes, but you must surely send in an extra amount beyond what you owe to demonstrate your commitment.

        My other volunteer actions in the past have been to research the budgets and help towns-folk understand them, and to pass a clipboard around at town meetings when people get up and say “I’ll gladly pay more in taxes.” I help them fulfill that offer by asking them to sign the list with their name and address, and the actual “more” amount they are volunteering to pay. Never once has there been any name or anything else added to the list when it comes back to me.

        The number one priority of the school system, and hence their budget, has always been and always will be to see that each year, all teachers, regardless of ability, are paid more than last year to do the same job, and more next year than this year. As the old saying goes, students don’t pay union dues, or belong to state and national organizations that protect their interests.

        That priority drives the budget, and diligent maintenance of the facilities used by the kids and turned over to the stewards in the school dept is at most an afterthought. “For the children” is popular at budget time, but has no tangible expression compared to “for the adults.”

        But that won’t stop demagogues from beating others up with the proven emotional trigger. Even when spending per child doubles, and is well above the national average, yet results stagnate.

  • Chew H Bird

    “Facilities Director Paul Caron even informed the elected officials that there was a layer of asbestos just beneath the floor tiles under their feet.” Covering asbestos with floor tiles or vinyl is a normal method of preventing asbestos fibers from entering the air because the new flooring layer serves as a barrier.

    “When we looked at the tax increase for the repairs,” Councilor Jane Millet said, “to me, it didn’t make sense to do that based on the fact that we’d be back in this same spot in 10 years.” Since Brunswick only build schools with a 40 year projected lifespan, it may (considering inflation and property renovations) be less expensive to maintain the schools we have by repairing them. While residents want safe schools and great teachers, failing to maintain what we already have seems to have become strategy of people entrusted with efficient use of taxpayer dollars. If I failed to maintain my house I would be considered a bad neighbor and and eventually would be informed by the town that my house is no longer habitable. Please repair what we already own before heading down the road of talking taxpayers into building something new (that will not be properly maintained). As a child I was always told by my parents to take care of what I had. It seems sad that our town doesn’t seem to follow that common sense advice.

    • Constant

      Penny wise and pound foolish, in this case. These school have already gone past their expected lifespan, and do not comply with modern safety standards. It makes no sense to throw good money after bad, ever heard that old chestnut? If repair netted a school that can go for many years to come, that would be wise. But when it is a temporary bandaid, and does not even guarantee a lengthy useable building, it is a waste.

      • Chew H Bird

        How long has Morse High School remained viable? I understand it may be replaced soon, but as I recall it has lasted a fairly long time. Until our town officials can figure out how to maintain what we have, and actually budget properly, why should any taxpayer support the creation of additional high priced and short term solutions to school buildings, especially when the long term outlook for education is veering toward a hybrid virtual-physical model?

      • poppypapa

        The High School I attended was built in the late 30’s, just like the old Brunswick High School.

        It is still in use, and is in spectacular condition. Don’t believe me? Here it is:

        • EABeem

          They don’t build them like they used to. Portland High School was built in 1864 and is the oldest continuously operating public high school in the country. Of course, tens of millions of dollars have been spent over the years renovating and updating it, as I assume has been done in Weehauken. Investing in our schools is the best investment a community can make. Not only do the school system and the facilities represent an investment in the future and reflect the values of a community, but tax dollars spent on education translate into higher home values. The house we bought last year in Brunswick would cost $150,000 more in Yarmouth, principally because of the quality of the schools. Yarmouth residents spent $20 million of their own money (no state help) to improve their school buildings in 2001.

          • poppypapa

            Renovating and updating are one thing. I don’t know about other districts, but Brunswick has specialized in deferring maintenance to the point of crisis. There is some evidence that this is accepted as the norm, because it serves longer term goals (hint, hint).

            Not caring for what you have been given to do your job should be grounds for discipline, and at some level, dismissal.

            “What belongs to you, you tend to take care of. What belongs to no-one or everyone falls into disrepair.”

            I toured WHS 5 years ago on my 50th reunion weekend. Other than obvious reno to the kitchens and the restrooms, everything else looked exactly like it did when I attended; just very well cared for. The gym, the auditorium, the hallways were all as they were. Even the old classroom doors were still in place and well preserved. There was an obvious pride in caring for the place, which is not what you see locally.

            It’s good to know your new house is worth far less than it would be if we had good schools. Funny; most will tell you people “move to Brunswick because of the great schools,” including a real estate salesperson who sits on the Town Council.

            “We have the best schools and the best teachers” has been the constant mantra over the years, and especially at budget time.

            I’ll keep your datum in mind for future writings.

          • EABeem

            My experience on a school committee and then on a school facilities committee suggests that maintenance funds are often sacrificed in order to meet demands to keep tax increases low and the quality of facilities likewise can be compromised by a desire to live within a budget. The least expensive building in the long run may be the one that was very well made in the first place and therefore expensive upfront. Portland High was built to last. We really don’t build schools like that anymore.
            On the Great Schools website that many families use when relocating, I see that Yarmouth High gets a 10 out of 10, Brunswick High gets a 9, Portland High gets a 6 and Weehauken High gets a 5.

          • poppypapa

            In your experience, how often have you seen care of the physical assets prioritized over teachers’ contracts with guaranteed future raises?

          • EABeem

            Of course not. Why would anyone want to do that? Got to keep your priorities straight. When forced by taxpayers to cut budgets, you first protect programs that benefit students. You can’t cut teacher contracts, but when you negotiate them you have to keep in mind that it hard to attract and retain great teachers and that teachers in general are underappreciate and undercompensated. So you’re usually left with discretionary spending like maintenance that can be cut. I was always an advocate of larding the budget with like-to-have items that could be cut to satisfy town councilors (who don’t feel they have done their job if they don’t make you cut something), but our superintendent wouldn’t play that game. He also didn’t play the sports card — announcing that all sports would have to be cut if the budget were cut any more.

          • poppypapa

            When you pay the worst teacher the same as the best teacher, which is the way our contracts work. it pretty much blows out of the water the notions of ‘great,’, underappreciate, and undercompensated.

            SOME teachers are great; SOME are anything but. SOME teachers are underappreciate; SOME are overappreciated. SOME teachers are undercompensate; SOME are overcompensated.

            Yet the unions and the education bureaucracy insist on homogenizing the teaching corps into an undifferentiated collection with no performance metrics or other discriminators that COULD result in greater appreciation and compensation for those that deserve it. And lesser compensation for those who deserve that as well.

            But as they say, the ‘common good’ mandates the arrangement, even though it flies in the face of human realities and a desire to do the best for “the children.”

            This is just one of the underpinnings of the government school system that contradicts the noble goals and missions they espouse, and infers it’s more about the adults than it is about ‘the children.’

            Here in B-town, with a $36 million school budget, the “show debate” between the council and the school department usually involves a sum in the range of $100,000. Kabuki theater of the highest level, practiced year after year because the discerning populace is easily manipulated by it.

            Never, ever, is there a thorough scrubbing of any budget, nor any thought of zero basing if every 10 years or so.

            Government is the only entity that can get away with such disregard for reality, because facing it involves ‘tough choices.’

          • EABeem

            You don’t pay the worst teachers the same as the best. All teachers serve a provisional period before being put on a continuing contract. Longevity is one factor in raises, but so is professional development and advanced degrees. But even if we did pay the same, the average would still be too low for the profession as a whole. As you may have guessed I am a great supporter of labor unions. It’s the best way to keep workers from being exploited. My father belonged to a maritime union and my father-in-law belonged to a rail union.

          • Chew H Bird

            My professional experience in developing training materials and measuring test results is that longevity (seniority), and advanced degrees (or certifications) have absolutely nothing to do with student accomplishment.

            On a personal basis, I had many good teachers, a few not so great, and three outstanding individuals who somehow managed to not only keep the top students effectively challenged, but also engaged the not so interested students and somehow managed to make their classes fun and interesting for the rest of us average folks. Those three teachers were known to “everyone” in our community and possessed a deep love of teaching as well as a burning desire to help all students.

            One of the flaws in our public education system is teacher compensation because the metrics to actually measure student performance (based on teacher ability) require soft skills. Simple measurements are not capable of actually evaluating teacher performance and instead of investing in our teachers we invest in unionized metrics which are incapable of rewarding teachers based on actual performance.

          • poppypapa

            “You??” It’s “we,” pilgrim.

            And you just gave away your total ignorance of how things work in your new home town. Look at a teacher’s contract. Their salary is based on years of experience and degree level, neither of which has to do with their being a superb or simply an average teacher.

            The point is, the system treats them and rewards them as machines, not unique individuals who contribute more or less than their colleagues.

            Exploited? How about rewarded? The union prevents the best from getting their just rewards.

          • Chew H Bird

            The least expensive car is one that is paid for and the same holds true for buildings. As long as a building is well built, and systems maintained, updated, and upgraded as appropriate, there should be no reason to replace it with a new structure (within reason) unless there is a significant shift in the demographics of an area (such as significant population growth).