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BRUNSWICK — At the urging of the School Board, the Town Council will only consider a referendum to borrow money for a new, locally funded $28 million school to replace Coffin Elementary.
At their Feb. 6 meeting, councilors also appropriated $40,000 to combat an anticipated outbreak of browntail moths this summer by injecting, removing and pruning affected trees.
The decision about Coffin means the council will no longer consider asking voters to also fund $5.6 million in repairs to the junior high school, as the School Board originally proposed in a $33.6 million bond that coupled the projects.
The council scheduled a Feb. 22 public hearing on the modified proposal; it follows on the heels of a lengthy Jan. 17 hearing that weighed both projects, although public comment focused almost entirely on the pricier new school project.
“The elementary school has always been our first priority,” School Board Chairwoman Joy Prescott told councilors.
The board had been concerned that if the council moved both projects forward as separate ordinances – an idea floated by at least one councilor – voters would only fund the cheaper option.
As for the junior high school, the board would like to see if the state will pay for the construction, after the Department of Education announced it is accepting applications for major capital projects in October, Prescott said.
The district will submit applications for both projects, and expects to hear back by June 2018. If the junior high school application is selected, the state may pay some or all costs associated with a new school.
The possibility of state aid presented the School Board with a tactical challenge. On Feb. 1, members said short-term improvements to the junior high would hurt the chances for state funding because the defects, including a sinking floor, would make for a more competitive application.
Eventually, though, the town will have to replace the entire building, board member Sarah Singer said. The school has structural problems that piecemeal repairs can’t easily fix – for example, an open central stairway that presents a fire hazard.
Given the small chance of the state paying for two projects, she said the town should be on the hook for the cheaper project, since a new junior high building could cost as much as $10 million more than an elementary school.
Getting funds for one school will be hard enough, according to architect Lyndon Keck, who has repeatedly cautioned that Brunswick’s application could compete with as many as 80 other schools for around 15 awards.
The council limited its discussion Monday to splitting the bond, opting not to discuss the details of the bond until the Feb. 22 hearing.
Last summer’s outbreak of browntail moth caterpillars caused respiratory problems and ugly rashes for some residents, spurred by the caterpillar’s airborne, toxic hairs.
State officials believe next summer’s infestation could be worse; state forest entomologist Charlene Donahue indicated in December that the number of infected trees could triple.
The town hopes to mitigate the impact.
Using the $40,000 appropriated Monday, the Recreation Department will prune, spray, inject and remove affected trees in six areas the department has deemed public “hot spots,” including the town mall and several public parks.
Town Arborist Jay Astle said a setback prevents the town from spraying trees within 50 feet of the water, limiting work to pruning and injecting the 266 affected trees along the town’s riverside bike path.
The town is also limited to treating public trees, Astle noted.
Still, “We are confident that we would see some improvement,” he said.
Councilor Sarah Brayman repeated her plea for town residents to proactively remove nests before the spring arrives.
Holding up a nest in a plastic bag, she advised residents to clip them and dunk them in soapy water to kill the caterpillars before they hatch.
Esther Mechler, a member of the grassroots Browntail Moth Action Group, told the council that the group is planning a nest removal day.
In addition to mobilizing the local community, Mechler said the group hopes to raise awareness at the state level, with the hope that the Bureau of Health will declare the infestation a public heath nuisance.
Right now, the state has not offered funding to municipalities combating outbreaks, according to Recreation Department Director Tom Farrell, and paying for mitigation falls upon towns and private citizens.
Jeff Gillis, an arborist with WellTree Inc., said it costs an average of $200-$400 to spray the average in-town lot.
Brunswick Town Councilor Jane Millett, left, and Vice Chairwoman Kathy Wilson watch as Councilor Sarah Brayman, center, shows a browntail moth nest she pruned from an infested tree. Brayman on Monday encouraged residents to clip and destroy visible nests to help mitigrate an expected infestation this summer.