Brunswick School Board to reconsider decision to move 5th grade to junior high school

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board intends to review its decision to move fifth-grade students to Brunswick Junior High School and could consider other options to ease overcrowding at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.

The decision followed a well-attended meeting Wednesday, where dozens of parents, school staff and others turned out to hear a presentation from petitioners who presented the board with 875 signatures from residents opposed to the move.

“Your community is asking you to reconsider the vote you made in May,” petition organizer Heidi Boyd said.

At the end of last school year, the board decided to move the town’s fifth grade to BJHS in the 2015-2016 school year, in an attempt to reduce the high student-teacher ratios in HBS classrooms. Officials also said they feared that a growing student population in the district could make the problem worse if the students weren’t moved.

A transition team, headed by BJHS Principal Walter Wallace, has been working on developing a plan for the last four months.

But on Wednesday, petitioners offered new figures that suggested the population crunch might not be as serious as initially thought.

Citing school department data, petitioners argued that enrollment at HBS will actually decrease in the next five years, from about 700 students now to 670 in the 2017-2018 school year.

The school was designed for 600 students when it was built in 2011.

Further, the petitioners said that unforeseen costs, like new playground equipment, additional cafeteria space, library materials, and teachers to fill unused classrooms at HBS were not factored into the initial $215,000 in estimated moving costs.

Without a population crisis, they questioned the need to spend money and disrupt students, staff and parents with the proposed move.

Instead, petitioners asked the board to consider alternatives to the move, like giving parents an option to move their children to the middle school, keeping students at HBS or re-purposing a music room at the elementary school into a new classroom.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski acknowledged there are new population and budget figures to consider, but questioned whether the data is as significant as the petitioners suggested.

Board reaction to the petitioners was mixed.

Member Brenda Clough said she felt “rushed” to digest and act on the information presented by the petitioners.

She asked the public to recognize the limited options the board had when it voted in May, and noted that it would be a waste to throw out all the work Wallace’s transition team has done.

“My preference is not to dismiss all the work that has been put into this,” Clough said, “and that is what you are asking us to do.”

Vice Chairwoman Joy Prescott noted the crowding at HBS, and said she doubts there is a no-cost option to ease the crunch.

“I am not comfortable with a do-nothing solution,” Prescott said.

Others, including board member Rich Ellis, said they support a reconsideration of the May vote, especially in light of the new information on enrollment and the budget.

“Personally, I’m not seeing the urgency behind executing this plan for the 2016 calendar year,” Ellis said, although he also said he would continue the transition planning. He was one of two board members who voted against the move in May.

Both Ellis and Chris McCarthy said the board should act quickly if it is going to reconsider the vote, because of budget implications and the use of staff time.

McCarthy said it is “unfair and inappropriate” to have the transition team keep working if the board isn’t going to go ahead with the move.

“They have got a lot to do without spinning their wheels waiting for us to pull the plug,” on the fifth-grade move, he said.

He also warned that there is unlikely to be another option if the move doesn’t happen, and warned that parents will have to “suck it up” if the result is crowded classrooms at HBS.

Sarah Singer, who was elected to the board last November, noted the age of BJHS and issues with the building brought up by Lyndon Keck, an architect working for the town.

Earlier in the meeting, Keck presented a list of repairs the building needs to its fire-control systems and storm drains, as well as fixes needed in classrooms that have sunk 6 inches since the school was constructed.

He estimated that the cost of repairs to BJHS and Coffin Elementary School could range from $5 million to $8 million.

Adding another 180 students to the aging facility could further exacerbate those issues and possibly put repairs further off, Singer said.

Perzanoski and the transition team intend to present new information on the fifth-grade move in February, when the board is expected to take action on the petitioners’ request.

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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