Frustration evident as Brunswick delays vote on new school

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BRUNSWICK — The town will likely have to wait another year before it votes on a potentially expensive school facilities project, most recently conceptualized as a new building to replace Coffin Elementary School.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said at a Feb. 27 School Board facilities committee meeting that an anticipated November referendum for an estimated $24 million spending package is now unlikely.

He said the next possible date for a school bond referendum will be in June 2015. He added that a November referendum would have allowed construction to begin next spring, with a possible fall 2017 opening date.

Now that timeline is up in the air.

“(The referendum’s delay) could have no effect, a little effect, or as much of an effect as opening” the school a year later than expected. “It’s been a long haul,” he said in describing the planning process that began in October 2011.

Perzanoski said a November referendum became less likely when the board tabled a decision at a December 2013 meeting to determine whether to build a new school on the site of the shuttered Jordan Acres Elementary School.

The board has yet to revisit that decision, although that may change next week.

After receiving public criticism about the project in late January and mulling it in the Feb. 27 meeting, the board may consider the Jordan Acres site at its March 12 meeting, Chairwoman Michele Joyce said on Tuesday.

At the January meeting, several parents and community members criticized the board for not fully considering the educational implications of a new 660-student school that would house grades K-2 and possibly a new pre-school program.

“The community is not yet sold on this vision,” Sarah Singer, a leader of the Brunswick Community United group, said at the time.

In discussing the criticism at the Feb. 27 meeting, board member and facilities committee Chairman Rich Ellis advocated for the public’s concerns about a lack of a strategic educational plan to go with a new building.

He argued that the board needs to assess the effectiveness of the large-school model for Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, which currently houses grades 2-5, before moving forward with a new school.

Citing state test data, Ellis said since the 600-student elementary school opened in fall 2011, the number of economically disadvantaged students not proficient in reading has increased by 36 percent. For students not proficient in math, the number has increased by 7 percent.

For those reasons, he said he wants to have more information about the merits of the School Department’s current education system to better inform the school facilities planning process going ahead.

“For three years I’ve worked on this project and we’ve not once talked (about the education merits on a certain school building model),” Ellis said. “… We have not had a single board discussion or presentation to give us confidence as supervisors of the School Department … to ensure that we are making the right decisions in investing in this as a continuing strategy.”

However, other board members said they don’t want to further delay the process. Some of them, along with Perzanoski, expressed frustration at the slow pace and the board’s lack of formal decisions regarding a new school.

“I feel like we’re not going to get anywhere unless we have a clear direction,” Joyce said. “I think the only way we’re going to do that is to make some decision instead of waiting and waiting and waiting.”

Perzanoski, in particular, lamented how process is holding up the implementation of a pre-school program, which he said is ready to begin and would help narrow the student achievement gap.

In addition, he said, the board’s indecisiveness is delaying implementation of a long-term solution that would address the aging Coffin school, and a growing student population in the town’s elementary schools that will force the board to implement one or two stop-gap measures within the next year.

“So we’re going to sit and talk and debate and debate and debate,” Perzanoski said, “and we’ve still got kids in those 45-year-old portable (classrooms) at Coffin, and frankly, I can’t take it anymore.”

This hasn’t been the first time a referendum has been delayed for the school facilities project, which began in October 2011 as a master study ordered by the board to assess the School Department’s long-term facilities needs.

Before the board’s plans to renovate Coffin and Brunswick Junior High School came to a halt last spring, a referendum on the project’s spending package was expected to go out for a June or November 2013 vote.

The plan to build a new elementary school was conceived last June after the board determined a $38 million project to renovate Coffin and the junior high school would be too costly for the town to do all at once.  

The town’s finance director at the time estimated the project could have caused up to a 10 percent property tax increase in its first year of debt service.

While never making an official decision about the new school plan, board members mostly agreed that a new elementary school should be a priority, in part because it would address Coffin’s aging facility and its long use of mobile classrooms. It would also help address a projected population growth in elementary students. 

In addition, board members said a new school could be justified because a preliminary estimate by Keck showed that it might only cost $4 million more than $20 million in costs associated with renovating Coffin.

Furthermore, board members said a new building would have a longer life span and therefore be a more worthwhile investment.

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.