Brunswick report shows support for new school, questions about configuration

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BRUNSWICK — A report released by the School Department points to strong public desire to build a new school at the site of the former Jordan Acres Elementary School.

But it also suggests the School Board has to convince taxpayers that a new building is necessary, and convince parents that the configuration officials eventually choose is the right one.

The information on which the report is based was collected at a Jan. 23 public meeting, and drawn almost exclusively from parents with children in the school system, school staff and elected officials. About 80 people attended the meeting, and it was estimated only two were not affiliated with the school system or a municipal office.

As a result, one resident at the meeting, Richard Fisco of Lincoln Street, said the department was acting like a “special-interest group.”

School board members also lamented the fact a more representative group was not at the forum, but argued it was not for lack of advertising or outreach.

The report compiled by Brunswick-based Good Group Decisions indicates a strong preference for building a new school.

During the forum, facilitators broke the crowd up into subgroups, which rotated around the room evaluating four options:

• Building a new elementary school on the site of Jordan Acres and repairing Brunswick Junior High School.

• Renovating and expanding Coffin Elementary School and repairing the junior high.

• Repairing Coffin and the junior high, and adding portable classrooms at Coffin.

• Doing no major repairs, renovations, or new construction.

The cost of the plan involving a new school would be about $34.5 million, according to PDT Architects, the architectural firm hired by the department.

The other options round out at about $26 million for major renovations, and $13.3 million for repairs and new portables.

Any option would have to be paid for entirely with local funds, according to PDT.

In small groups, participants were asked to come up with pros and cons for each option, and then vote for the pros and cons they felt were most important.

In total, the new-school option received a total of 85 votes in favor and 49 votes against.

The vote was 69-55 against the major renovation option, and 89-43 on the repair option.

The “do-nothing” option was opposed 99-9, and there were 22 votes for “other ideas.”

But written comments submitted during and after the meeting show the group’s overwhelming votes for a new school does not mean the School Board’s path is assured.

Although board member Rich Ellis asked meeting attendees to assess the buildings in a way “neutral to (grade-level) configuration,” many comments attacked this issue head-on.

“No costed option includes creating a pre-K through(grade) 5 campus at Coffin (Elementary) … and moving BJHS to Harriet Beecher Stowe,” one person wrote.

Coffin currently serves kindergarten and first grade, as well as a few second-graders; Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School serves grades two-five, and BJHS grades six-eight.

Many comments echoed the configuration point. “A great number of people are interested in pursuing configuration changes … pre-K through 5 seemed to be a goal for a wide swatch of people,” one said.

“Please, please, please reconsider a K-5 configuration,” another wrote.

Justamere Road resident Chris Watkinson said in an email Tuesday that the configuration question is not one the School Board can escape.

“The merits of the current grade configuration of Brunswick’s elementary schools has in fact never been discussed or debated by the School Board,” Watkinson wrote.

Instead, he argued, the current set-up “has been running as de facto configuration since the forced closure of Jordan Acres. Where is the data that indicates this configuration is working?”

Watkinson has been a vocal critic of school configuration since playing a lead role in stopping the plan to move the fifth grade from Stowe to the junior high school in 2015.

On Monday, Ellis agreed the configuration question has to be addressed.

“It’s a historical challenge,” he said.

But he said he is confident the board can move forward with planning a new school before deciding definitively if it will be a K-5 campus, or a K-2. He said important architectural choices, like age-appropriate bathrooms, do not have to be decided now.

“The way to move forward with this is to engage and willingly accept the conversation,” he said. “But at the end of the day,” he noted, citing compliance issues at Coffin and BJHS, “you need a new building.”

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

Brunswick’s Coffin Elementary School, built in 1959, has never had a major renovation, and fails to meet basic standards for fire safety, accessibility, and protection from hazardous materials.

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.
  • Chew H Bird

    So if I understand the article, Brunswick has allocated about $16,000 for an outside facilitator to conduct (among other things), a small meeting of about 80 people (78 who have kids in school or are part of the “system”) to decide they prefer spending 30-35 million dollars of taxpayer funds to build a new school in a community of 20,000 people?

    Many online demographics show the largest, or second largest industry in the Brunswick area are those associated in some manner with education. With roughly 2300 students within a population of 20,000 I would roughly (and in an uneducated manner) theorize that about 20 percent of Brunswick residents have active students in the school system which (to me) means that 80 percent of the people attending this meeting should have been regular taxpayers (without school age children) in order to have any sort of semblance of a crosscut of the Brunswick population matrix.

    While I am huge proponent of a great educational system, the mis-management of Jordan Acres regarding building maintenance, the general concept of constructing educational facilities for a 40 year lifespan, and the perpetually growing tax increases by our town (fueled primarily by increased education costs), leaves the “average Joe” perplexed by this special interest group made up of 78 people with “skin in the game.” All taxpayers have “skin in the game” whether they have school age children or not.

    I find it absolutely appalling that our educators and school board members do not have anyone capable of facilitating a meeting or creating a living strategic plan. I have been involved with non-profit groups with budgets far larger than Brunswick for such things and those groups utilize their qualified members to conduct meetings and create plans. Those groups use their members (in Brunswick’s case “taxpayers” could be a group), because it is the right thing to do and they are not wasting money on outside facilitators and planners. This entire process that Brunswick is going through, as outlined in this article, is appalling.

  • InThrall

    As I recall, the Brunswick School Board discussed and decided the school configuration issue in 2007, when it voted to build the Stowe School for grades three to five. Does the Board need to begin the discussion anew every January, when new members are inaugurated? One group of parents will never let this issue doe.

    • Chris Watkinson

      2007, nine years ago. Is it unreasonable to expect to see results that indicate the reconfiguration has positively impacted the students? In the face of declining test scores and 40% of HBS students falling below grade level in Math, requiring additional in-school services ($$$) wouldn’t it be irresponsible to not consider that the reconfiguration has negatively impacted the students?

      • InThrall

        How can you say that HBS has had a negative impact if you do not have figures from Coffin, Hawthorne, Jordan Acres, and Longfellow Schools from prior to 2011? You may not like the level of achievement at HBS, but you must prove that achievement has declined since 2011 before you can argue that a negative impact has taken place.

      • Jimmy_John67

        Welcome to Brunswick. Cost per student is one of the highest in the state and continues to rise while student performance continues to decline. Yet the answer is always more money or new buildings and never to hold the high level administration accountable or fundamentally change strategy and priorities.

      • Brenda Clough

        This kind of question about correlation is misleading and continues to add to the stalling tactics and inflames the facilities issue. The current school board (and at least for the last 6 years that I can immediately recall) and BSD administration have had student achievement as our primary goal and principle for decision making. These statements and questions assume you can make a direct correlation between test scores and configuration as they exist in Brunswick. It assumes that every other variable that influences achievement, has remained (and can remain in the future) constant except configuration. With many mandates coming from external sources, especially changes in the achievement testing movement, no reliable and valid conclusions about the relationship between Brunswick student achievement and Brunswick school configuration can be made from the public achievement testing results data reported during this time. What is more important is that every school in Brunswick, has a team of professionals who continuously examine individual achievement of every student using a multiple set of data points that, in turn, informs teaching objectives and practices.

        • Chris Watkinson

          Respectfully Brenda, I’ve heard this from you before, when you were defending your support of the 5th Grade move to BJHS in 2014 (another wasteful decision that would have negatively impacted the community). Your view amounts to “this issue is too complicated for the common person, trust me, don’t concern yourself, everything’s fine”… Which is a sentiment I flatly reject. It’s condescending, and would be insulting were it not so bizarre. Frankly Brenda your view betrays a troubling attitude where you seem to fundamentally miss the point that you are to serve as a Representative for the people of Brunswick. As such, you should seek out and encourage input from all parties in order to best serve your community; not raise the specter of a shadowy cabal of… (who, exactly?) in an attempt to attack the credibility of views that differ from your own.

          I asked a simple question: where is the data that indicates our current configuration is working? Do you have an answer?

          I’m not going to bother arguing the connection between improper grade configuration and negative academic performance of students here, because a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know. There is a mountain of evidence available that does exactly that, studies conducted in peer reviewed academic journals for institutions of higher learning, by people more qualified than both you and I to speak authoritatively on the matter.

          You’d be well served to read up on the matter and make an informed opinion that best serves the community you are supposed to represent, rather than a knee-jerk “I don’t want to talk about this anymore” reaction. No one ever happens upon the best solution by ignoring a problem.

          • InThrall

            What kind of argument is this, Chris Watkinson? “There is a mountain of evidence, but I am not going to bother to look for it or cite it…” I suggest that you do a little research before you start attacking others. You did not ask a question. You made an assertion that you could not prove. I would suggest that the initial burden is yours.

          • Chris Watkinson

            Incorrect, “InThrall”. Roll your eyes up a little and re-read what’s on this page. The article above is about the School Board’s conversation about new construction. Toward the end, when the article brings up the separate question of grade configuration, I ask “Where is the data that indicates our current configuration is working?”

            You, “InThrall”, dismissively characterize that question as one that the School Board asks every year, while in the same breath stating the matter was decided in 2007 – nine years ago. That only further underscores the long-overdue and conspicuous absence of data that indicates the re-configuration of our schools benefits the students. So again I ask, where is the data? Furthermore, how did the School Board justify the re-configuration back in 2007? I’d genuinely like to know, and so far I have not seen that answered.

      • InThrall

        It is, after all, impossible to compare achievement from one “era” to the next. Until 2008 Maine used the MEA, and then, from 2009 to 2014, it used the NECAP. Last year it used the disastrous test prepared by SBAC, and this year it is experimenting with one prepared by Measured Progress, Inc. Who knows how good these instruments actually are?

    • Brenda Clough

      Yes, this is the primary problem we have faced in the facilities issue. It is not that reconfiguration has not been discussed. It has been publicly discussed, research presented and considered. Not only by the present school board, but previous school boards going back to 2007 have listened, considered, and voted. When a vote doesn’t go as this group wants, it is branded as ‘it wasn’t discussed thoroughly and publicly’ or ‘faulty research has been used’ or ‘this school board doesn’t listen’, or any other number of justifications to attack a decision. When dissatisfaction with any decision is used to stall forward movement, it unnecessarily costs the taxpayer increasing amounts of money over time. It doesn’t solve any of the facilities problems we face, safety and security, capacity, deteriorating buildings. It also breeds conflict and division in our community. It affects staff morale. This divisiveness will continue. New 2016 committee leadership plans to ‘save the day’, having publicly vowed to actively fight for ‘what’s right’ prior to being on the school board. The 2017 inauguration will be another “opportunity” to look back, reexamine, ”look at all the many possibilities” referred to in Facebook posts. Unfortunately this type of mentality costs Brunswick’s taxpayers money. Look carefully at who expresses dissent about schools in Brunswick. This school board has spent money chasing so many angles of this issue. It is time to decide and move ahead with whatever decision comes next. The total amount of money that has been spent examining and reexamining the same things could be applied to so many other things. InThrall is on the right track saying “One group of parents will never let this issue die”. And these same attitudes and behaviors bleed into many other areas. Great things are happening in our Brunswick schools. We need to celebrate these accomplishments.

      • Chew H Bird

        I fully agree a shorter and more decisive approach would save a significant amount of money which could be better spent on actual education. That said, 16k in funding for facilitation of a group where 78 of 80 attendees have a direct physical relationship with Brunswick education is, in my opinion, a complete waste of taxpayer resources.

        The physical plant issues at Jordan Acres could have been avoided if the building had been properly managed.

        Targeting less than 20 random Brunswick residents to attend this meeting is indicative of a desire to preach to the choir and avoid actually discussing the monetary concerns of the majority of Brunswick taxpayers.

        • Brenda Clough

          Yes, an approach that would save money would be for us to have a long term vision guided by an informed involved public. Public meaning I would hope this would be representative of all citizens in Brunswick. Historically, the current superintendent had asked the school board to do the work of seeking out a representative view of Brunswick’s citizens and what was wanted from their schools in many areas. There had been little in the way of long range strategic planning resulting in a common strategic vision to help plan year to year, investing incrementally each year to get to desired outcomes in a strategic vision. It is easy to see that the same group of people come to school board meetings and provide their views. After many years of resistance by the school board, we are finally engaging in a process to gather this input from a broad number of Brunswick residents. Facilities has been just one area of gathering the public’s views. The $16,000 was spent on far more than just the one facilities forum. I agree that the public facilities forum did not result in a representative group attending. We will need to find a way to acknowledge that in the plan that will soon be drafted by a group representing all the stakeholders related to this issue. There are school staff, school board members and community members who planned the process and now will look back at the process, review all the community input, and draft a future strategic vision and goals upon which yearly and multi-year planning can be based, ie, “a shorter, more decisive approach”. If this $16,000 results in a common strategic vision that can guide effective rational planning and decision making and put to rest all the division and controversy in this community, then I would say it was money well invested. And there will be a return investment on not just this money, but also on money expended yearly. I personally have a very hard time justifying money spent on anything that will be discarded/undone after 1-3 years (note the relationship to terms of office) or 5 years or even 10-20 years without getting a good return on it. I fully understand the taxpayer’s dissatisfaction with this process. I do want to clarify that according to professional engineering opinion, the JA physical plant issue was caused by a defective construction design. The report is available at the Superintendent’s office for review.

          • Chew H Bird

            Shoveling the roof would have prevented the problem. That said, if a defective design was proposed, accepted, built and signed off, the engineering firm that designed the building, the project manager, project engineer, and whoever accepted the final work for the town should all be held accountable and their insurance companies should pay for the replacement school. That is how life works when there are competent people representing the taxpayers of Brunswick.

  • farmertom2

    Bygones, a good policy to follow in general, suggest that the town needs to look closely at what it has, what it needs and what it will need. We don’t need to look at how we got here.
    The Navy base closed, now it looks as though there might be an enormous influx of new jobs on the site where the base was. Crystal Ball gazing is tough. One thing that is essential for the health of the town is a decent school system. How to make sure we have that is not obvious.

    • Chew H Bird

      However, if we are talking call center jobs, they will be low wage, limited hours, screen reading, on a timer sort of jobs that are high turnover and high frustration… The technology equivalent of digging fence holes on a hot day.

      • Jimmy_John67

        Agree. Most of the Wayfair jobs won’t pay enough for the employees to live in Brunswick therefore the impact on the number of children enrolled in the school system should be minimal. Guaranteed the always free spending Brunswick school administration will use the potential impact from these potential jobs to justify a multi million dollar spend on a new school to further increase Brunswick taxes.