Brunswick school advocates flex organizational muscle
BRUNSWICK — In less than a year, a small group of residents has become a recognizable force in school politics, steering support for a strong 2012-2013 school budget and endorsing School Board candidates who were elected by landslides.
Brunswick Community United officially formed in reaction to the state's $1.2 million reduction in aid to local schools earlier this year.
Sarah Singer, who became one of the chief organizers of BCU, said it began with a forwarded e-mail from School Board Member Brenda Clough.
"It was her assessment of what the funding situation with the shortfall was going to be," Singer said. "There was a fair amount in red and all caps, and it was clear this was going to be a problem. It was clear she was trying to trying hard to speak to her constituents."
Singer then reached out to other parents and residents to discuss the greater implications of the funding shortfall.
"My youngest is 2, and my oldest is almost 4," Singer said. "It seemed to me that I belonged to a community of people who were really relying on the schools, but not engaged in the discussion about the schools because our kids were so young."
On Feb. 23 – less than a month after the Department of Education announced its cuts – Singer, other parents and some local officials met to discuss the idea of an organized group set on fighting for a strong school budget.
"The original goal of the group was to empower the School Board and to make them think they could get the school budget they deserve," said Kate Kalajainen, another BCU leader.
Singer said Councilors Benet Pols and Sarah Brayman, state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, Dana Bateman, who is a former president of the parent teacher organization at Coffin Elementary School, and about a dozen others were present at the meeting.
Pols said he and Brayman went to the meeting to talk about the concept of the group, but he does not consider himself an associate because he doesn't believe it's appropriate to hold an activist role as a councilor.
"I have a healthy respect for their organizational skills and their healthy approach to staying informed of school issues," Pols said.
Within a few weeks of the meeting, BCU was born, a website and Facebook group were created, and the group set its focus on the 2012-2013 school budget.
Singer said the group isn't officially incorporated, and there isn't an official hierarchy as to how it operates. Indeed, its website doesn't identify any leaders, board members or contacts. But contains a trove of information about the school budget, educational strategies and discussion about issues for the community, including the School Department's facilities plan.
Singer said there are about 17 leading members who make decisions through committee, either through weekly or monthly meetings, e-mail or Facebook.
She said the group eventually plans to incorporate. She identified other leading members as Steve Perkinson, a professor at Bowdoin College; Realtor Jane Millet, and music teacher Teresa Gillis.
"Our membership is really just an allies and supporters list that came through our Facebook page and through people who e-mailed us and said I agree with you 100 percent, I want a yard sign. We keep track of those people," Singer said. "And we maintain our own voter file on people who we believe will vote for budgets and candidates."
A lot of the organization first appeared when the School Board began discussing the 2012-2013 school budget, Singer said, where many things were on the chopping block. That prompted BCU to create lawn signs and bumper stickers, along with a petition to urge strong support of the budget.
It drew approximately 900 signers, she said.
"I think they've had a very significant impact on the community in terms of organizing to support the school budget," Town Council Vice Chairman Ben Tucker said.
There is a level of organization to BCU that belies the group's loose structure.
Some of that comes from Singer, who is an experienced political organizer. In the past, she has worked for the Writer's Guild of America West; former U.S. Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign; the Monorail Yes! campaign in Seattle; and a union in California.
Despite her own activist political background, Singer said BCU is not a partisan group.
"I don't think being committed to quality public education is a partisan concern," she said.
And for those who are wary of BCU support for a school budget that may cause a property tax increase, as the 2012-2013 budget did, Singer said that skirts the real issue.
"How you spend that money, regardless of how much that is, is hugely important," she said, suggesting the School Board hasn't focused enough of the overall vision on projects like the School Department's planned renovations at Coffin Elementary School.
"Every meeting seems to come very quickly right back about the cost," Singer said. "That's why I'm representing a group of people who really feel like we want critical thinkers on the School Board."
Earlier this month, BCU got its wish.
The group endorsed School Board candidates in every district on the ballot, and all three of them won by overwhelming margins.
Newcomer Joy Prescott won the board's at-large seat with 67 percent of the vote, incumbent board Vice Chairwoman Corinne Perreault was re-elected in District 4 with 75 percent of the vote, and newcomer Chris McCarthy was uncontested in District 3.
Singer said about a dozen BCU members canvassed for the candidates. Some members also participated in phone banks.
"I have a background in politics and I've worked on different campaigns before in my life," she said, "and this is the best canvassing I have ever done in my life."
One of BCU's more substantial contributions to the election was the questionnaire it sent to for four of the five School Board candidates. The surveys asked each candidate about their communication style, what would they do if faced with a budget shortfall, and other scenarios a School Board member would face.
Dale King, the candidate who lost to Prescott, was the only one who did not return the questionnaire. King's wife Joanne, the outgoing Town Council chairwoman, said Singer harassed her husband to get a response.
King said Singer called multiple times, and finally ended up leaving a questionnaire at the Kings' doorstep – on the weekend one of their daughters was being married.
Singer said wasn't her intention to harass King and she was trying to be fair to all candidates and give them equal opportunity to respond to questions. She said all of the other candidates responded to the questionnaire.
"I made every effort to get out to him, given this (race is) what I thought would be one of the more contested ones," Singer said. She said King even left a message for her after she first called, and said he wanted to talk.
But King sees other problems with the group. She said it is vague about its membership and pretends to be larger than it really it is. King also said the group has a specific agenda: to increase school spending.
While BCU's website gives no indication of who is part of the group, Singer said the group is not trying to be clandestine. She said the all-volunteer organization hasn't had time to focus on the website, and has plans to address the site by the end of the year.
The group's 382-member Facebook page, while private, is open for anyone to join, she said, including local officials, journalists and anyone who is curious about BCU. Singer and Perkinson are the administrators of the page, and they control who gains access to its content.
Singer said the website, Facebook group and an e-mail list are also used just to keep concerned residents informed about what's happening in Brunswick schools and government.
She said the while the BCU will continue to focus on the School Department's facilities upgrade plan, the group's ongoing goal, no matter what issue hits the School Department, is to provide a mechanism to keep people informed about school issues.
Singer said whether BCU eventually supports an estimated $21 million bond for renovations and construction at Coffin Elementary School and Brunswick Junior High School - that will reportedly cause around a seven percent increase in property taxes - will depend on the specifics of the budget.
At Coffin Elementary School, Singer said "we need to look at how much other school districts pay for (similarly sized schools.)"
As for the renovations at Brunswick Junior High School, she said "I would caution that the town is looking at significant deferred maintenance, so if we wait any longer, it might become another Jordan Acres," referring to the elementary school that closed last year, in part, because of deferred maintenance.
"I don't think there's a choice," the BCU leader said.