BRUNSWICK — The School Board voted 6-2 Wednesday to urge the Town Council to make funding a new elementary school a higher priority than repairing the junior high school.
The Council is expected to vote Monday on the board’s original endorsement, a $33.6 million bond that coupled the projects.
Wednesday’s vote, which followed a Jan. 17 public hearing, sprung from the concern that the council might split the bond ordinance ahead of a June referendum, increasing the likelihood that voters would opt only to fund the cheaper repair option.
“The priorities need to be set by the School Department,” board member Sarah Singer said, before seconding a motion by Corrine Perreault that would have asked the Town Council to only put the new elementary school to referendum.
However, Perreault modified her motion when town Finance Director Julie Henze told the board that if the council substantially alters the ordinance, the change would necessitate another public hearing.
That news shocked the board, which was operating under the impression that the council could shrink, but not broaden, the bond ordinance without triggering another hearing, based on a previous comments by Town Manager John Eldridge.
Board members Teresa Gillis and Billy Thompson opposed the motion. Gillis withheld her support because she was “not comfortable with the message” it sent to the junior high school students and staff. Thompson said that bifurcating the bond would risk increasing the cost of funding repairs down the road, due to inflation.
Mandy Merrill, who represents District 1, was not present Wednesday.
Delaying repairs to the junior high will also give the department a chance to see whether the project receives state aid.
The Department of Education announced in October that it would accept applications for major capital projects, and the School Department will submit applications for both projects this spring.
The school’s architect has called the possibility of receiving funding a long shot – at the Jan. 17 hearing, he anticipated that around 80 schools will compete for about 15 awards – but presents the opportunity for the state to pay for a new junior high school.
Board members are concerned that funding repairs to the junior high school would decrease its competitiveness for receiving state aid.
Ultimately, the town will need to replace the building, which would cost as much as $10 million more than a new elementary school. Singer said if the town is going to pay for new school, it should be the cheaper one, and it was worth waiting to see whether the state selects the junior high before it pays for a temporary “Band-Aid.”
Vice Chairman Jim Grant backed Singer, as did Perreault – although Perreault regretted treating the junior high as if it were “the middle kid that always gets forgotten about.”
Singer also used Wednesday’s meeting to denounce the narrative perpetuated at public meetings that the ailing state of school facilities is because the district fails to properly maintain them.
The accusation’s persistence at public meetings “just continues to boggle my mind” she said, and is “harmful” to the school system and its needs.