Brunswick moves closer to vote on school service center

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BRUNSWICK — Residents will have the opportunity to weigh-in on whether the School Department should join a regional service center.

Councilors on Monday set a public hearing for Aug. 20 on a possible November referendum question that would ask voters whether Brunswick should join the Greater Sebago Educational Alliance.

They also unanimously authorized spending $10,000 from available tax increment financing funds to provide preliminary engineering work and right-of-way work for a parking area and park-and-ride lot on Cedar Street. The $10,000 satisfies a 20 percent local match to a Maine Department of Transportation grant for the project.

Because the School Board unanimously voted to join the service center in May, Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin said the “final several steps” include bringing the idea to councilors and asking them to place a referendum question on the ballot.

The regional service center was approved by the state Department of Education in May and includes public schools in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Brunswick, Gorham, Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport, Durham, Pownal), Regional School Unit 6/School Administrative District 6 (Buxton, Hollis, Standish, Limington, Frye Island), Regional School Unit 14 (Windham, Raymond) and School Administrative District 15 (Gray, New Gloucester).

It was approved as part of the department’s EMBRACE Regionalization Initiative. The centers are defined as nonprofit, multi-service agencies formed in part to provide regionally shared services to districts.

Services shared by districts included in the Greater Sebago Educational Alliance will include joint purchasing of food supplies; sharing professional development, substitute teacher recruiting, training, and diversity recruitment; and sharing the English Language Learners intake process. Joining the service center would also allow the district to purchase goods in bulk.

“We have worked together to develop a really nice plan to work together as a regional service center to offer a few different types of services,” said Makin at the meeting. 

Makin said the DOE has offered an incentive to districts for formalizing the effort, which for Brunswick would mean an increase in its state subsidy for fiscal year 2019 of roughly $38,000, or an additional $46 per student. According to town documents, DOE has promised to increase the incentive to $96 per student the following year.

Attorney Aga Dixon of Drummond Woodsum in Portland, who was also on hand at Monday’s meeting, said the state is providing $20,000 in start-up costs, such as legal bills, for each district engaged in the initiative.

Dixon also affirmed that each district within the alliance would be making its own decisions.

Councilor Jane Millett said she was concerned about the staying power of the service center’s benefits.

“The only other concern I have is that what the state giveth the state taketh away,” she said.

Councilor David Watson said school officials needed to be able to take the “high-level explanation” that was given at the council meeting about the service center and relay it in simpler terms to the general public.

Park-and-ride

The town will expend $10,000 from TIF revenues as the required local match for a $40,000 grant from Maine Department of Transportation to assist in the planning and construction of a new long-term parking area on Cedar Street.

The town would maintain the lot under a 20-year lease agreement, and the plan is to establish 150 parking spaces at the site initially. Depending on the use of the parking spots, the memo states the town and MDOT could partner again for “future expansion.”

MDOT owns a gravel lot on Cedar Street, which Town Manager John Eldridge said has been used “off and on for park and ride, not very successfully.”

The new parking would serve Downeaster train passengers and provide park and ride space for riders of the MetroBreez and other bus services.

A memo to councilors from Eldridge states details of the project remain to be finalized, but MDOT has committed to providing the funds for preliminary work. If the preliminary report comes out “positively,” he said the next phase would be construction.

MDOT aims to begin phase I next summer, to include pedestrian access from the lot to Union Street and the train platform.

The project was included in the capital improvement plan adopted by the town for fiscal years 2019-23, and Eldridge said the initiative is something the town has looked at “for years” in the Cedar Street area.

The initiative is part of a broader plan to improve downtown parking in Brunswick; councilors also ordered a preliminary design for a downtown parking garage at their July 18 meeting. 

In other business, councilors voted unanimously to transfer $400,000 in town-held scholarship money to the Brunswick Area Student Aid Fund.

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Brunswick Town Council Chairman John Perrault, left, Town Manager John Eldridge, Councilor Jane Millett and at-large Councilors Alison Harris and Kathy Wilson discuss the Greater Sebago Educational Alliance regional service center at the Aug. 6 council meeting. 

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