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BRUNSWICK — Selling an old school building to Bowdoin College for $2 million is not the right way to plug a deficit in next year’s school budget, according to the town councilors.
That was the message Tuesday night at a special Town Council meeting, called in response to Bowdoin’s offer to renegotiate last October’s swap of the Longfellow School for the McLellan building.
Chairwoman Joanne King said Caty Longley, Bowdoin’s senior vice president for finance and administration, called her a week ago to say college staff had been pressuring Bowdoin President Barry Mills to “do something” about Brunswick’s projected school budget deficit of nearly $3 million.
In the fall, councilors opted to exchange the two buildings and convert McLellan, at the corner of Noble and Union streets, into the town’s municipal complex and council chambers. Town Manager Gary Brown estimated the cost of renovating McLellan would be $200,000, double the estimate offered by an architecture firm last summer.
After asking two construction firms for estimates of how much a complete renovation would cost, the potential cost jumped to around $800,000.
But despite the increase, most councilors said they still want to proceed with the swap and pass up the cash.
“This one-time money was not the way to go,” King said at the end of the meeting. “It was a short-term fix for a very long-term problem.”
Most speakers in the public hearing agreed.
George Gilmore said he supported the initial decision to exchange Longfellow for McLellan, a swap he said would support town staff for decades into the future.
“To walk away from this decision for cash, which in a year will be gone and the town will be back where it was before this transaction took place … would be a great mistake by the Town of Brunswick,” Gilmore said.
Support for the sale was lukewarm even among the most vocal education advocates.
“I urge that if the council does vote to sell (Longfellow School),” Sarah Singer said, “you assign that money to capital improvements at Brunswick schools and not use it to offset a one-time funding shortage in this year’s budget.”
Jeff Pelletier, who frequently addresses the council on educational spending, agreed.
“What I would like to see is some long-range planning,” Pelletier said. He called McLellan “an asset to take advantage of.”
Renata Ledwick urged the council to keep its focus on supporting education, not municipal buildings.
“The town’s schools are so much more important than the facilities in which town staff work,” she said. “Town facilities aren’t going to draw people here.”
Eager to move the council to a decision and rather than conduct a full-blown discussion, King asked councilors to go around the table and state their positions – a move that irked Councilors Sarah Brayman and Benet Pols, who spoke last.
“I would have preferred some discussion before we went around the table,” Brayman said before voting to sell Longfellow School to Bowdoin.
Pols agreed, and asked why the price of renovating McLellan had increased so sharply since Brown’s initial estimate.
“Determining an accurate number for the fit-out costs should have been part of the due diligence of figuring out if we wanted to take the building in the first place,” he said, to applause from the audience.
But King, with the outcome of the vote already determined, said the cost discrepancy is “a non-issue if there is no support to engage in this trade back with Bowdoin.”
With that, King and Councilors David Watson, Ben Tucker, Suzan Wilson, Gerald Favreau and Margo Knight voted to proceed with the swap and turn down Bowdoin’s $2 million.
Pols, Brayman and Councilor John Perreault backed the college offer.
Members of the public who stayed behind after the meeting were overheard expressing concerns about the way King polled the council.
On Wednesday, King said she asked councilors to give their opinion before the discussion because “it really wasn’t a new issue. It was just deciding whether to reverse a previous decision, so it didn’t really require hours of debate.”
She said she also wanted the council to make a decision so Bowdoin could proceed with its plans.
“We made the decision already,” she said. “There was no reason to drag it out and it would have just caused confusion.”