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.