Brunswick School Board puts brakes on 5th-grade move

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BRUNSWICK — Plans to move fifth-graders to Brunswick Junior High School were postponed Wednesday to give the School Department time to investigate other options for easing overcrowding at Harriot Beecher Stowe Elementary School.

School Board members voted unanimously to table the move until at least 2017, following a recommendation by Superintendent Paul Perzanoski.

The board voted in May to move the fifth grade in the 2015-2016 school year. The decision met fierce public opposition.

A fifth-grade transition committee established in October will continue to plan for a fifth- through eighth-grade program, and will report its findings to the board.

But board members and administrators will also examine a fresh group of options, including splitting the fifth grade between HBS and BJHS, transferring the second grade to Coffin Elementary School, or going back to two K-5 schools at Coffin and HBS. 

The facility cost of moving the fifth grade is estimated to be almost $324,000 over eight years, with $285,500 in first-year costs. Technology costs would add another nearly $67,000, Perzanoski noted in a presentation to the board.

Moving the second grade, on the other hand, could cost as much as $1.3 million, with another $59,000 tacked on for technology, Perzanoski said.

The larger cost reflects the purchase of a large modular classroom unit at Coffin to eliminate the school’s existing portable classrooms, he said.

“These options are a starting point, they are a guide,” Perzanoski told the board.

While the costs are high, the board will have an opportunity to include the price of school reorganization into a bond package planned to pay for repairs at BJHS and Coffin, Perzanoski said. 

“The timing is really good,” he told the board. 

Board member Sarah Singer said she wants to make replacing the decades-old portables at Coffin with a new modular building a priority regardless of what plan the board ultimately chooses. 

“I see that as an unavoidable cost,” she said.

Perzanoski agreed, noting that including the measure in the bond package could pay for the improvements.

Board members largely agreed with postponing the fifth-grade move, but several noted the part that public objections to the move played in the decision.

Last month, organizers presented a petition with almost 900 signatures asking the board to reconsider its decision. A survey taken by the School Department also indicated many parents had a negative opinion of the move.

But board member Janet Connors said that based on conversations with constituents, she didn’t know if the move is as controversial as it seemed to be.

“I’m not sure I feel the community is very concerned,” Connors said.

She was also distressed, on a “very deep level,” she said, that the board was reconsidering its vote from last May.

“I feel bullied, I feel the School Department has been bullied,” Connors said. Considering the prominence of anti-bullying programs in schools, she questioned the example that was being set for young students.

Board member Corrine Perreault reminded the audience that the board had made all its decisions in public, after lengthy discussions and work on the part of the administration.

“We don’t just show up to a meeting and pick an idea out of the sky,” Perreault said.

Others, including board member Chris McCarthy, said postponement is a positive step that will allow the board to come up with a long-term strategic plan for its schools, especially since new enrollment projections show a small decrease in students at HBS in coming years, rather than the overcrowding predicted previously.

Board member James Grant, who made the motion to delay, acknowledged the shifting circumstances, but said moving the fifth grade to BJHS should still be examined.

“All options should be on the table,” he said.

In an interview outside the meeting room, petition organizer Chris Watkinson said he was pleased with the outcome of the vote, and glad that the board is taking concerns to heart.

The new options presented by Perzanoski were promising, Watkinson said.

“That’s all we’ve been asking for since we organized last fall,” he said.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @PeteL_McGuire.

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