Most Brunswick councilors ‘happy to drag out’ school bond decision

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council did not make a decision Tuesday about whether a $33.6 million bond for a new elementary school and repairs to the junior high school should be put to referendum this June.

“This is a major decision and I’m happy to drag it out,” Councilor Sarah Brayman said, echoing the majority who voted 7-2 against a motion to move forward with the bond question.

The motion, by Councilor Steve Walker and seconded by Councilor John Perreault, failed because the council wanted more time to consider the issue. About 30 members of the public spoke passionately for and against the proposal during the hearing.

Based on preliminary financial models, Finance Director Julie Henze estimated the debt service would add an additional $160 to the median homeowner’s tax bill in the first year.

More information, including charts to help individual property owners find the potential impact on their tax bill, is available online at bit.ly/2iJl0bz.

Henze said her projections are based on funding both school projects. At a December meeting, the council considered splitting the bond into two ordinances, but after opposition from the School Board, councilors Tuesday appeared to drop that possibility.

In addition to increasing taxes, councilors must also consider the varied implications of several project time-lines.

Most councilors agreed that the town is facing a capacity crisis at Coffin Elementary School and a new building is needed, but several hesitated to support the bond before hearing whether the state will fund the majority of the project.

In October, the Department of Education announced it will accept applications for major capital improvement projects – due this April – for the first time since 2010; Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the district will submit applications for both projects in late February, and the state is expected to name winners in June 2018.

PDT’s Lyndon Keck, the project architect, reiterated to the council that the funding is a long shot.

“This is a very competitive process,” he said. “Our firm is presently handling 11 applications” in addition to others he was aware of across the state.

He estimated that the state would likely choose to fund between 15 and 20 projects from a pool that could exceed 80 applications.

If Brunswick is selected, he said, the project time-line would take much longer than a locally funded option, since the town’s needs would be prioritized in relation to the awarded projects. Keck told the council it should be prepared to wait as many as 10 years to see a school materialize.

While Keck said state funding could carry up to 80-90 percent of the building cost – Brunswick received state money to pay for 87 percent of Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in 2010 – he cautioned that waiting has its risks.

With 3 percent annual inflation, Keck said, the cost of building the school (presently $28 million) could increase more than $2 million in the next three years.

Additionally, school facilities committee Chairwoman Sarah Singer expressed concern about Coffin Elementary’s ability to accommodate increasing enrollment over 10 years.

“We are out of classrooms,” she said, adding that the 62-year-old school has inadequate space for student services and is facing the prospect of relegating its art program to a cart.

However, Vice Chairwoman Kathy Wilson, like Councilor Dan Harris, said she still wanted to bank on the chance of state aid.

“If we don’t get the money, we can do this next year,” she said. “I’m for the school, (but) I’m for it next year.”

Wilson said she won’t vote for a project that would raise taxes for her constituents living on a fixed income, many of whom have reached out to her and “are scared to death” over the expensive project.

Some of those constituents spoke during public comment.

“(Funding this) is going to affect me extremely, extremely hard,” Gary Suley, a 30-year resident of Sandhill Drive, said.

Like Suley, Redwood Lane resident Jean Powers urged the council to keep in mind the town’s aging population and vote down the proposal.

But others, especially parents, vocalized matching fears over the aging and inadequate conditions of the schools – especially Coffin Elementary.

“They have to cross the street to get to classes,” Nathan Hintze, a kindergarten parent at Coffin Elementary and resident of Arrowhead Drive, said. He referred to the “embarrassing” fact that children have to don jackets and cross the street to get to classes held in portable units being used to house overflow classrooms and the school’s library.

“That has been going on for 48 years,” he went on, referring to the age of the portable classrooms. “I’m not even 40 yet.”

Earlier in the evening, Keck noted that portables have an intended lifespan of five years, and are rarely employed by districts for more than 10 years.

Many parents said they chose to live in Brunswick because of its reputation for good schools, and residents like Cedar Street’s Greg Beckett argued that building a new school would be an investment in property values and the community fabric of the town.

Andrew Larde, of McLellan Street, warned that if Brunswick doesn’t maintain its schools, people might leave.

He said anecdotally, he knows a colleague going through a divorce who decided to move to Topsham. He said his colleague’s lawyer took photos of Coffin Elementary to build a custody case that favored his client’s ability to remove his children from Brunswick.

The council has not set a date for when it will make its decision, although a memo from Town Manager John Eldridge indicated a decision is needed by mid-April to hold a June referendum.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

A packed room listens as Brunswick School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski speaks Tuesday, Jan. 17, about a proposed $33.6 million bond for a new elementary school and repairs to the junior high school.

Updated 2/22 to correct the amount the median tax bill would increase.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.

  • Chew H Bird

    “Embarrassing”???? That is hardly any basis for spending in excess of 30 million dollars… Wow…

    I do not doubt the need for schools with adequate facilities for our students and am in favor of providing a top notch education. That said, to even mention the term “embarrassing” as a heart string tug, (sales pitch), is disgraceful. I have zero doubt if I were one of the students that needed to put on a jacket and cross the street for a class it would be the equivalent of a short break and would allow me to focus more clearly on class material. I’m not saying I’m in favor of a campus made up of learning pods, but I think we all need to simply consider the quality of education over the outward appearance (which to me is like the cover of a book, not the content). Heck, I almost wonder if a campus made up of “learning pods” on a 5-10 year replacement, expansion, and rightsizing model, with some architectural enhancements might be a more cost effective model than a building with tens of millions of costs and a 40 year lifespan?

    Brunswick raises taxes every year like clockwork, holds the school budget vote with minimal advertising at a time when the majority of participants in the school budget voting process have a financial (or student) interest in the results. I am certain that Brunswick has the intelligence, integrity, and creativity to provide a better education with less capital investment than what is currently on the table if we consider the primary mission to be the best education for our children and everything else secindary.