Brunswick elementary, junior high schools 'a catastrophe waiting to happen'

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BRUNSWICK — When Lyndon Keck presented a $9 million plan for renovating Coffin Elementary and Brunswick Junior High schools, he painted a picture of two buildings with great need and a town with few resources.

“Our marching instructions were: tell us the most critical items that need to be repaired,” he told a joint meeting of the Town Council and School Board on June 18. “That’s where we held the line.”

The board voted last November to have Keck’s Portland Design Team architects develop a repair plan for the two schools, choosing not to pursue building a new elementary school.

“(That decision) was primarily based on the fact that there was no agreement within the board and not much support, at least at that time, from the community with going forward with a new school … because of the price tag,” Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said Monday.

Both schools were built in 1959. Coffin school has never had any major renovations in its nearly 60-year history, according to PDT.

The oldest portion of BJHS has never had a major renovation, but the school has been expanded with additions in 1966, 1976, and 1983. The 1983 wing was built after a fire.

The result is a patchwork of buildings that fail to meet basic fire and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and contain traces of hazardous materials.

The renovations PDT presented to the town will try to tackle those issues, and not much else.

“When people walk in and look at the schools, they won’t see any change,” said Keck. “There are no educational improvements.”

Out-of-code buildings

Both Coffin and BJHS fail to meet state and federal standards for fire, ADA accessibility, and hazardous materials.

In the Coffin school, a fire suppression system is present, PDT said in its report to the School Department, but it only protects “corridors, the gym, the cafeteria, and the kitchen.” There are no ceiling sprinklers in classrooms, meaning less than half of the 53,000-square-foot building is protected.

At BJHS, the proportion is about the same: less than half of the 94,000-square-foot building is protected by sprinklers. PDT estimates the cost of installing new coverage in unprotected areas and replacing old sprinkler heads is about $280,000.

Additionally, Coffin has no student restrooms that meet ADA standards for accessibility. BJHS also has no compliant student restrooms, and only two staff restrooms that meet codes. The estimated cost of renovation and new construction is just over $260,000.

In the 2014-15 school year, Coffin had 58 special education students, and BJHS had 100, according to the School Department.

The buildings also contain hazardous materials.

According to PDT’s report, the schools contain asbestos in flooring materials, pipe covers, and trim. There is lead paint on site, and PCBs in exterior sealants around windows and material joints.

Under federal law, asbestos and lead do not require immediate removal, as long as the condition is being monitored and documented by the School Department. PCBs, however, must be removed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists PCBs as a probable human carcinogen, which also may have serious potential effects on the immune system, neurological development, and thyroid hormone levels.

The EPA says children 6 and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead, which include behavior and learning effects, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. Exposure to asbestos increases risk for lung disease and lung cancer.

According to PDT, there is almost 50,000 square feet of asbestos-containing floor tile or mastic flooring, and just over 2,000 linear feet of asbestos-containing exterior trim and boards at Coffin Elementary.

PDT estimates the cost of removing toxic materials from both schools at just over $1 million. 

Perzanoski said the schools have been able to operate out of compliance with state and federal standards because their age has “grandfathered” them, even as new laws and regulations have been enacted.

He said the proposed repair project would bring the schools into modern compliance.

“We can’t continue to have kids go to these schools in the condition that they’re in,” he told the council and School Board at their joint meeting.

He called the situation “a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Shifting politics

The council and board expressed support for the repair plan, while lamenting the “short-term” nature of the solution to the School Department’s infrastructure woes.

“I personally will continue to be disappointed … (that we’re) not changing the educational value of our buildings,” board member Brenda Clough said.

Her colleague James Grant called the repair a “stop-gap” measure, suggesting that not investing in a more long-term solution would be “wasting taxpayers’ money.”

Keck told the officials that he is “not proud of what (the schools) are going to look like when (the repair) is finished … it won’t fulfill the dream people have of having a wonderful school that they’re going to want to send their kids to.”

But, he said, the project would make the buildings “safe and secure.”

Perzanoski reminded the board that they voted for the repairs a year ago, and that delaying a decision on the project to explore other options could keep it from going to a referendum this November.

“We have been paralyzed in these discussions over and over again,” board member Sarah Singer said. “What (this project) gets us is a safe, functioning school, which we have to have. … I need to know that that school is safe for my own children.”

In addition, she said, “I can’t see the town of Brunswick ponying up to build two more schools.”

Money for new schools aside, board members and councilors noted that this project – which currently has a price tag of just over $9 million – could still be rejected by voters.

Furthermore, asking voters to borrow money now might hurt the likelihood another bond could be passed in 10 years, when PDT estimates the town will seriously have to look at replacements for Coffin and BJHS.

“Ten years is nothing in this town,” Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said, noting that people still call Brunswick High School, built in 1995, “the new high school.”

“If you come back in 10 years and ask for more money, people remember,” she said.

Keck also said that in 10 years the School Department might be eligible for state funds to construct a new school.

Still unknown is whether the School Board will vote to remove Coffin’s six out-of-date portable classrooms and replace them with 12 new ones, at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.

School Board Chairman William Thompson said he thinks the repair has a “good shot” at being approved in November.

“We need to communicate to the town this is an immediate need,” he said. “The success or failure depends on us as a board.”

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

Sidebar Elements

Brunswick’s Coffin Elementary School, built in 1959, has never had a major renovation.

The kiln at Brunswick Junior High School, which the state fire marshal’s office considers a fire hazard, is not secured in a fire-rated enclosure.

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.