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Brunswick School Board weighs new proposal to save freshman sports

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Brunswick School Board weighs new proposal to save freshman sports

BRUNSWICK — With parents and coaches still simmering from the School Board's decision to cut freshman sports from its fiscal 2011 budget, coaches and the high school athletic director have drafted a proposal to retain as many sub-varsity sports as possible.

Meanwhile, the board's 7-1 decision on May 12 has prompted backlash from some residents who say the decision was made hastily, secretly and nefariously.

Some of the most vocal criticism has come from Natasha Watson Richards, board member Byron Watson's sister, who last week started a Facebook page where residents and students have posted comments railing against the cut. 

The page has 411 members.

Richards, who has a daughter who will be a freshman at Brunswick High School next year, denied that the Facebook page was created to boost the political currency of her brother, who was the lone dissenter in the School Board decision.

Earlier this year Watson was removed as board chairman after sending what several residents and board members described as an inappropriate e-mail to House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

"My feelings and concerns are about me and what's best for my family," Richards said. "It just so happens that I agree with my brother this time. We disagree on a lot of other things."

Watson said his sister acted on her own and without his collaboration.

"My sister is an American citizen entitled to her own views and a right to free speech," he said. "It's the citizens that are pushing this issue, not me."

Watson, however, was the one who alerted a reporter about the Facebook page with a text message last week that said "Have you (seen) the Facebook Group started to 'bring back freshman sports'?. Roughly 250 joined in two days. Many irate comments up there."

In a subsequent e-mail conversation, Watson was asked if he collaborated with his sister to set up the page. Watson said Richards started the page and he thought it was a "great idea."

Watson, and his father David Watson, a town councilor, are page members.

Watson later forwarded an e-mail exchange between himself and Assistant Superintendent Greg Bartlett where Watson asked to convene a meeting of the board's Drop-Out Prevention Committee to discuss the elimination of freshman sports.

Bartlett ultimately denied the request, writing that the board shouldn't "deal with political or budget issues."

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski agreed.

"I'm not going to allow (Watson) to utilize a board set up for noble purposes to be politicized," Perzanoski said Monday.

Perzanoski, who on Monday said he hadn't seen the Facebook page, later notified the entire School Board about it, and of Watson's request to convene the drop-out committee.

"I told them because I want them to know what (Watson) was doing," Perzanoski said.

Watson said the insinuation that a meeting would become politicized was an attack against him and the entire committee.

"It wasn't even my idea to call the meeting," Watson said. "It was brought up by (Drew Ross), a citizen representative."

Watson also rejected the idea that the board's decision reflected a choice between funding freshman sports or school resource assistants, which help students lagging on math and reading. Watson said cutting freshmen sports was never seriously considered until May 12.

"When they did that I was as shocked as the public was," Watson said.

"Framing this issue that way is wrong," he added. "Nobody is against resource assistants They're as important as freshman sports. We need both."

The School Board was ordered by the council to deliver a budget with no more than a 1 percent property increase.

Watson, who made comments before the vote describing taxes as an assault on personal freedoms, was asked what the board should have cut instead of freshman sports. He said it wasn't a choice between retaining resource assistants, but perhaps trimming their hours. He also questioned why the high school needed two assistant principals, as well as a teachers contract that includes step increases.

"One hour after the board voted to hurt close to 200 kids, it then voted to give $240,000 in raises to the teachers," he said. "They're saying they're taking a wage freeze, but step increases are raises."

Watson was among board members who negotiated the new teacher's contract. Asked if he fought against the step increases, he replied, "When you're one voice you have to pick your battles."

The freshman sports decision was made on impulse, he said, without information from the athletic director. "There was a quick, nine-minute conversation," Watson said. "It was an uninformed decision."

Meanwhile, school officials continue to deal with the fallout. On Monday, a meeting was held for concerned parents. On Tuesday, Brunswick High School Athletic Director Gene Keene met with coaches to draft a proposal to save freshman sports.

The proposal includes coaches taking a pay freeze on post-season stipends, cutting funding from freshman and junior varsity programs with low participation rates and a stepped-up fundraising effort by parents.

The projected savings is about $41,000, the same amount needed to retain freshmen sports. The allocation represents about 0.001 percent of the School Board's adopted $32.3 million budget for fiscal 2011.

Perzanoski said the board would consider the proposal on June 9.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net