Brunswick forum suggests support for new elementary school

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BRUNSWICK — About 80 people gathered at the town offices last weekend, nearly all of them parents of students, to discuss Brunswick’s aging schools.

The School Board organized the Jan. 23 public forum to present the four proposed options for moving forward by either repairing, renovating, or replacing Coffin Elementary and Brunswick Junior High schools, and also to solicit feedback.

Both schools were built in 1959, and fail to meet basic standards for fire safety and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The schools also contain traces of hazardous materials like asbestos, PCBs and lead.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski once called the questionable safety of the schools “a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

The School Board is now considering four paths forward, which Portland Design Team Principal Architect Lyndon Keck presented to the crowd Saturday morning.

Option 1, according to Keck, would include repairs to the junior high, minor repairs at Coffin, and construction of a new elementary school at the site of the former Jordan Acres Elementary school in three years. The estimated cost of that plan is $34.5 million, resulting in a 2.38 percent local tax hike in the first year and a 3.87 percent hike in the fourth, to pay for new construction.

Option 2 would include major renovations, an addition to Coffin Elementary, and repairs to BJHS. The estimated cost of that plan is $26 million, with a resulting 6.73 percent first-year tax hike.

Option 3 would be to simply repair both schools, and replace the old portables at Coffin with 12 new ones. That plan would cost an estimated $13.3 million, resulting in a 4.12 percent first-year tax hike.

Option 4, Keck explained, would be to “do nothing,” meaning making repairs on a project-by-project basis through the town’s Capital Improvement Plan, or starting from scratch on a new plan for replacing or repairing the schools.

Any of the options would have to be locally funded, Keck explained, because no state construction funds are available. Both Brunswick High School and Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary were built with financial assistance from the state.

Meeting participants then broke up into eight small groups to discuss each of the options. The forum was facilitated by Good Group Decisions, a private firm based in Brunswick.

Good Group Decisions is also facilitating the meetings for creating the School Department’s long-term strategic plan. The department has budgeted $16,000 for Good Group’s services.

Facilitator Leigh Tillman asked small groups on Saturday to write “pros” and “cons” for each option, and then vote, by placing stickers on pieces of butcher paper, on which pros and cons were most important to them.

She said at the end of the session that all the votes would be tallied and summarized in a report. Although no hard data was available Saturday, there was a clear trend of more “pro” votes toward building a new school, and an overwhelming negative response to the “do-nothing” option.

Board Chairman Billy Thompson said he was “very happy” with the meeting’s format. “There’s more dialogue, and much better discussion,” he said.

Hiring Good Group Decisions was also a good move, he added, because “(it) allowed board members to participate in a much more free and open way.”

School Board candidate Elizabeth Sokoloff agreed. “What’s effective about it … is it forces focus on one question at a time,” she said.

At one point in the meeting, Lincoln Street resident Richard Fisco asked anyone in the audience who was not a parent of a school student, a town councilor, or paid employee of the School Department to raise their hands.

Two hands went up.

“Maintain the schools we already paid for, please,” Fisco said. The tax increases for new buildings or undergoing major renovations is a “stress on the elderly community,” he added, a community that was absent at the public forum.

After the meeting, board member Rich Ellis lamented the lack of wider representation at the meeting.

“We advertised in the papers, we put up posters around town, people were out leafleting,” he said. “… I wish we had more (people) come.”

Board member Sarah Singer said she sent out 15 personal invitations to people uninvolved in the schools. But only one of them came, she said.

“The reason parents come is because they have a lot of skin in this game,” she said.

As the meeting wrapped up, school administrators and facilitators from Good Group Decisions consolidated all the paper from the small groups containing brainstorming and votes.

On a sheet for Option 4, the “do-nothing” option, was a declaration centered on the page, written in red.

“Please make a decision,” it said.

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

Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School Principal Jean Skorapa leads a small group at a Jan. 23 school facilities public meeting in Brunswick.

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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.