Brunswick council in no hurry to assess $33.6M school bond

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BRUNSWICK — Town councilors Monday said they will take their time considering a $33.6 million bond proposal from the School Board to fund a new elementary school and repairs to Brunswick Junior High School.

The proposal would be the largest bond package to ever come before the town, and councilors indicated the needs of the school system would have to be weighed in the context of other capital projects.

“I don’t want to have redundant conversations,” Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said after proposing a schedule that would include a public hearing as late as January. “It is our job as councilors to be comfortable enough … to send this forward.”

One member of the school facilities committee said he was frustrated that the town did not take action following the School Board’s three-part presentation, and worried that the delay will throw the committee off schedule leading up to the proposed June referendum.

Given the long, belabored history of the school projects, the council approached the proposal with skepticism over the cost, though with little surprise over the need for a new school.

In August 2015, the Town Council rejected a $12 million repair package to rehabilitate Coffin Elementary School and the junior high, arguing that the repair option was a bad investment in failing facilities, and the town should spend money on buildings that will last.

More than a year later, on Nov. 9, the School Board endorsed a revised plan to replace the aging Coffin Elementary School with a nearly $28 million, 660-pupil elementary school on the site of the old Jordan Acres School, which was decommissioned in 2011 because of structural problems.

The bond is coupled with repairs to the junior high, minus some that were taken care of this past year with $1 million in state money from the revolving renovation fund. The remaining repairs would cost $5.7 million.

But major facilities discussions stretch back as far as 2011, when the sudden closure of Jordan Acres forced the newly built, state-funded Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School to absorb the second grade and Coffin to take in the remaining grade levels.

Since then, rising enrollment has pushed Coffin – which houses classrooms and the school library in several 50-year-old mobile units – to the limits of its capacity.

School Board Chairman Billy Thompson and Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski began their presentation by charting progress the board has made since it last came before the council more than a year ago.

PDT Architect Lyndon Keck then took the council through the design plans for the new building.

“There was a lot of value engineering and cost-cutting done in the process,” Keck said, showing areas where the board has trimmed more than $3 million from the original plans.

Town Finance Director Julie Henze presented a series of graphed financial models to illustrate “how we pay for it,” which included options for the taxpayer to pay off the bond in 25 or 30 years, depending on interest rates.

The possible tax impact in Henze’s presentation were provided to the council, and is available on the town’s website at www.brunswickme.org.

The bond would be paid off using either a “smoothed” and “conventional” payment structure. The former draws payments out in small increments, relieving the initial tax burden, but amounting to a larger total payment overall; the conventional model is staggered. Payments for both models decline after the first 15 years.

At one point, Brayman asked whether the proposal might be split into two separate bond ordinances, giving the town a chance to delay the funding of the less-urgent junior high repairs.

This would allow the town to see whether the repairs were eligible for a new round of state-funded projects, news that would come in summer 2018.

Keck told the council and the board not to count on state funding, because Brunswick will compete with as many as 80 other projects for only 15 spots.

However, the School Board decided in October to submit applications for both facilities projects; it plans to withdraw the elementary school application if town voters approve the bond in June, but will keep the BJHS repair application in the running.

But, as Brayman pointed out Monday, borrowing for the two projects together in June means the town will risk losing the $5.7 million if the state accepts the BJHS repair application in 2018 – “shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said.

Councilor Jane Millett, who attended a finance committee meeting Dec. 1, said the council will have to make a decision within the context of other major capital projects in town – especially the need for a new central fire station, which has languished in the town’s capital improvement plan for several years and fallen into disrepair.

“We need to pay attention to all of those voices,” she said.

Millett, backed by Councilor Alison Harris, was also concerned that the School Board had not devised a concrete plan for what to do with the Coffin School building after it’s been decommissioned. But Thompson said that was difficult to answer, given the number of unknowns that still face the facilities committee.

Thompson urged the council to keep in mind that the School Board is charged with the responsibility of forming a building committee, not to mention the task of selling the public on passage of the bond.

Board member Rich Ellis agreed with Thompson, and said during and after the meeting that he “was disappointed” the council did not take action Monday.

But at whatever length of process, he said he hopes the council will send the bond to referendum in June, since the total cost will increase about $1 million every year with inflation.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Brunswick Town Councilors John Perreault, right, and Suzan Wilson, and Vice Chairman Steve Walker discuss a proposed $33.6 million school bond on Dec. 5.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.