State funding clouds Brunswick school decision

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BRUNSWICK — This fall, Coffin Elementary School welcomed a record 193 kindergartners through its doors – the largest class in the state, according to the principal.

The large enrollment places additional stress on a school that is already struggling to support its student body: Coffin has resorted to housing both the kindergartners and the school library in mobile units.

These woes are no secret; the School Board voted last March to build a new school at the old Jordan Acres site. The cost of new construction, when coupled with necessary repairs at Brunswick Junior High School, would cost the town more than $30 million, according to the latest projections from a Sept. 21 facilities committee meeting.

At the same meeting, the committee learned that, for the first time since 2010, the Maine Department of Education is accepting applications from municipal school districts for major capital construction projects.

For Brunswick, that raises the possibility of paying for the school with state money.

It would also delay the construction of a new school by at least two years, while the state reviews applications and allocates funding – assuming Brunswick is awarded funds over the 70 other districts that are likely to apply.

For Coffin, that may be too long.

Facilities committee Chairwoman Sarah Singer said while there is no harm in Brunswick throwing a hat in the ring for state funding, the town’s best option is to hold a June 2017 bond referendum that would allow construction to begin sooner.

Coffin saw an increase of 29 students over last year; if that rate of growth continues, it would put the school over capacity.

“We’re right on the edge of not meeting (needs)” Singer said. “I’m not sure we have the luxury of waiting six to eight years.”

‘Chasing a silver penny’

On Sept. 12, Lyndon Keck of Portland’s PDT Architects, who was hired by the department to design a new elementary school and also headed recent construction at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, told the facilities committee that the state usually funds the top 12 qualifying school projects.

Over a process that will take about two years, the state ranks applicants on a need-based rubric that accounts for factors such as overcrowding, the age of the building and functionality.

Because the applications are need-based, if a school that requires an expensive project is ranked high on the list – for example, Sanford High School, which Keck said needed $100 million from the state and ranked second on the 2010 list – it could mean fewer schools overall get funded.

Keck said the pool of applicants is likely to include more than 70 jurisdictions, especially because the department hasn’t accepted applications in six years.

Topsham’s Mount Ararat High School was one of the schools to receive funding during the 2010-2011 rating cycle; it ranked seventh on a list of 71. But in 2016, School Administrative District 75 has yet to break ground on a new school.

Keck could not speak to Brunswick’s chances for funding, but said that given the extensive analysis already performed on Coffin, the town would have a strong application.

Because Coffin is in a more dire state than the junior high – which has a sinking wing from the 1950s, but not the same overcrowding problems – he thinks Coffin would be a more competitive application. However, the junior high’s better condition also make it easier for the town to wait to funding its repairs.

That said, the town is able to submit applications for both schools and see what happens.

While state funding is always the most ideal option, Singer, the facilities committee chairwoman, said the town should not wait to see if Coffin is selected, in case residents approve the school bond in a referendum next June. In that case, Keck said his team could start construction on a new school as early as May 2018.

“I left that (Sept. 21) meeting believing that we would apply for both (schools),” Singer said.

But she is concerned that “chasing the silver penny” of state funding would “put us past the expiration date of Coffin.”

“If the bond doesn’t pass in June, I would not then say that our fallback (for Coffin) is (the state funding),” she said.”I would say that our fallback decision is to renovate Coffin.”

“My first priority is that we’re operating a safe school,” she emphasized, adding “the junior high is a good contender” for state funding.

According to Singer, Coffin Principal Steve Ciembroniewicz, and Director of Facilities Scott Smith, the current state of the schools is not a safety hazard for students. Singer, a parent at Coffin, said she wouldn’t send her kids there if it were.

But from a School Board perspective, balancing the safety of the facilities and the urgency of replacing it is a hard message to communicate to the public.

‘Expiration date’

Coffin’s “expiration date” poses less of a threat to the safety of students than it does to the district, Singer said, because the situation at the school is more operational than structural.

Using the example of a failure by the school’s tired boiler pipes, an unheated classroom wouldn’t hurt a child, but it would put the administration in a position where teachers have no place to teach; the same is true if enrollment keeps increasing, since the school is at capacity.

Lisa DeCesare, who has children at both Coffin and Harriet Beecher Stowe, has her doubts about safety, however.

Three weeks ago, her 5-year-old daughter Nora fell from the Coffin monkey bars, bruising her head and neck. A week later, she fell from the same monkey bars, and fractured her arm in two places.

After meeting with Ciembroniewicz to tour the playground facilities, DeCesare said she was outraged at the state of disrepair, pointing out rust and tree stumps that are unsafe for small children at play. She said she was especially worried when she learned that only two teachers supervise five classrooms of children, which is what she believes allowed her daughter to fall a second time from the same equipment.

Smith and Ciembroniewicz could not discuss DeCesare’s case in particular, but said in general, the school would not operate if there were safety hazards.

“Unfortunately, accidents do happen,” Ciembroniewicz said, but neither he nor Smith has noticed an uptick in playground accidents in recent years as the school has reached capacity.

Unconvinced, DeCesare said she is considering removing her children from Coffin and HBS, citing a loss of faith in the school system.

The level of public criticism of Coffin is unclear, and Smith said he hadn’t heard any previous complaints like DeCesare’s; Singer simply said she couldn’t tell.

But in response to stories like DeCesare’s, Singer said she supports “the awesome education” that Coffin still provides despite its situation, and that hopefully, any public scrutiny of the school’s condition will translate into votes for a new school in June.

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

Administrators say Brunswick need to act quickly on replacing Brunswick’s Coffin Elementary School, built in 1959.

Edited 10/5 to clarify that the School Board voted to build a new elementary school in March 2016.

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