BRUNSWICK — A public hearing Wednesday on the final budget and designs for a new elementary school prompted debate over the proposed “two schools within a school” concept.
The School Board had to defend decisions members say will maximize the long-term functionality of the school, but have increased costs since the last project update.
A town councilor who attended the School Board hearing expressed reservations about the project, saying he had hoped the board would present the council with a budget he’d feel comfortable defending when it goes to referendum in June.
But that concern could be unwarranted, if the response from the public Wednesday is any indication. Residents who spoke among the approximately two dozen who attended seemed to agree with how the board has handled the project.
The School Board will present its final design to the council on Dec. 5.
PDT architect Lyndon Keck reported that the new school, when coupled with repairs to Brunswick Junior High School, would cost just over $33.6 million.
The building will accommodate 660 students. While the board plans to educate students from pre-kindergarten through second grade in the completed school, Keck said the building is designed with flexibility in mind, and can accommodate different configurations.
He said that increased construction costs from adding more brick to the outer siding, and the board’s decision to install a geothermal heating system, raised the price about $1 million from the last two facilities meetings, bringing the final total to just shy of $28 million.
Although site plans for the building have not changed in months, the layout still prompted debate.
Keck described the building as “two schools within a school,” where each wing houses a separate “learning community” of pre-kindergarten through second grade students.
Each wing contains classrooms to accommodate 330 students, and stem from a central hallway that connects to common spaces like the library, cafeteria, and gymnasium.
Reading from a list of emailed questions the board received from a group of teachers, member Brenda Clough asked whether the separate wings would foster adequate community among teachers.
Clough said ideally she would like to see the wings connected through a corridor that would connect the second stories of each wing.
Board member Janet Connors agreed, saying the separate wings would “limit the flexibility tremendously,” and that the connection would be worth the cost, which Keck said would be an extra $400,000-$500,000.
But Board member Sarah Singer pushed back on that idea.
“I don’t think it’s a radical thing to give (learning communities) smaller spaces,” she said, citing an analysis of Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary that calculated 350 students to be an ideal size.
When the town had four elementary schools, small learning communities were the norm, and Maggie Jansson, a graduate of the school system who has a child at Coffin, remembered those days fondly.
“It was great,” she said during public comment. “It’s hard to sit here and remember what I had and not feel bad for my son.”
Kate Kalajainen, of Palmer Street, testified that a small learning environment benefited her three children, by strengthening the bonds between them, their classmates, and their teachers.
Because Brunswick can’t afford to build two separate schools, Board member Rich Ellis said the proposed design “tries to strike a compromise” between a small school and a larger, cost-effective option.
Adding to that, Keck said with 12 classrooms each, the wings would be “vibrant, busy spaces,” where students and teachers would have the opportunity to congregate in shared spaces.
Clough said her reservations aren’t strong enough to stop the project in its tracks, “but we may be creating some challenges for teachers who want to collaborate with each other.”
Town Councilor Dan Harris, meanwhile, said “It would be a lot easier in my mind to sell the bond to the community” if the board considered ways to trim the budget.
He listed several ways, such as outsourcing preschool to a private organization like Brunswick Landing’s Family Focus, or reconsidering the geothermal heating system.
Chairman Billy Thompson and Singer defended the geothermal system, appealing once again to future flexibility.
Though it added $700,000 to the final cost, a geothermal system provides “nearly free air conditioning,” Singer said, and will allow the schools to operate year-round programs.
“The context for geothermal was more about how you use the building and when,” than adding environmental bells and whistles.
In what felt like a summation of the board’s decision-making process, parent Ryan Sullivan of Meadowbrook Road said they should “make a building that we can be proud of in 50 years.”
“Do it right the first time, do big the first time,” he said, putting in an additional appeal for the junior high school, which was hardly discussed.
“That place needs a lot of love,” he said.
In addition to the new elementary school, the town will vote on $5.7 million in repairs to the junior high school. But Thompson told Sullivan that the town is submitting an application for state funding that will hopefully cover some of the costs, although not until years from now.
Based on Wednesday’s input, the School Board will meet in early November to finalize the plan they will submit to the Town Council in December.
Heeding the implications of Harris’ cautionary words, Singer ended the meeting by summarizing the state of Coffin Elementary School, and said she hopes the town will vote to fund the school in June.
She suggested that the board host another site visit at Coffin so members of the public could see for themselves that the aging building is beyond rehabilitation and barely able to accommodate its growing student body.
Harris, who toured Coffin earlier this year, agreed.
“Coffin’s got to go,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to spend time there.”
Lyndon Keck presented final designs for a new elementary school at a Brunswick School Board public hearing Oct. 19.
Brunswick’s proposed new elementary school will feature a “two schools in one” design, and be able to accommodate different grade configurations.