The Universal Notebook: We need to fund our schools

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There is a rally Wednesday in Augusta for the state to fully fund 55 percent of public education, as Maine voters voted to do in 2003, and to impose a 3 percent tax on income over $200,000, as Maine voted to do in 2016.

In my experience, civic-minded people always support public education. School facilities are an outward expression of a community’s values, education is the best investment we make in our collective future, and, oh, by the way, quality schools increase property values.

On June 13, voters in Brunswick, where I live, will have an opportunity to fund our schools by building a new one, a $28 million elementary school. I have never had and never will have children in the Brunswick schools, but I will be wholeheartedly voting yes in order to replace Robert P.T. Coffin School, an embarrassingly outdated building attended by “temporary” portable classrooms that have been in place for 50 years.

I would also have voted to spend another $6 million to repair the rather sad and tired Brunswick Junior High School next door, but town officials decided back in February to forego fixing up the old junior high in hopes of getting some state funding for a new one.

Brunswick is applying for state funding for both the elementary school and the junior high, but the path to state funding for schools is long and tortuous in the best of times, and the LePage administration has made it even more difficult by not allowing any new school funding applications for six years, thus creating a huge backlog.

So I wouldn’t hold my breath for getting the state to pay for a new school in a town that already received state funding for Brunswick High School in 1995 and Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in 2011. We need to fund our own schools.

I have lived in Brunswick for only several years, but it has become apparent that town officials move very deliberately and cautiously on major projects such as school buildings, town halls and police stations. I guess that’s a good thing, but the School Department has been actively studying its school facilities for at least six years, holding some 80 public meetings without taking action. Delay in construction costs money. The cost of a new school goes up something like $1 million every year we wait.

Of course, Brunswick has had to deal with a lot of changes since 2011, when the Brunswick Naval Air Station was decommissioned. The school population fell from 3,250 to 2,350, close to 100 employees were laid off, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow School was traded to Bowdoin College for a new Town Hall and Jordan Acres School was closed for structural reasons.

Not only did Brunswick lose the students from the air base and the federal subsidies that came with them, but it also lost 200 students from Durham when that town consolidated with Freeport and Pownal.

While I’m sure good-faith mistakes were made in responding to these changes, I am just as sure that, no matter how you look at it, Coffin School needs to be replaced. Young families are discovering what a great community Brunswick is and the school population is rebounding. Stowe School, which houses grades two through five, was built for 600 students and now has more than 700. A new primary school is simply a must.

In voting for a new elementary school, I will be voting to raise my own taxes nominally, perhaps $300 a year, a contribution I am happy to make to have school facilities we can all be proud of and that tell the young people of Brunswick that we value them and their educations.

The sorry condition of some Brunswick schools is, in part, a reflection of decades of buying down the tax rate by deferring maintenance. Naturally, there are a few folks in town who oppose the school bond referendum. If they are so concerned about property taxes rising, they should take it up with the state Legislature for not funding public education at the mandated 55 percent and, even more so, with Gov. Paul LePage for shifting the costs of public services from the state to the cities and towns.

Come June 13, we will find out just how much the people of Brunswick value public education. A community that names its schools after distinguished local writers should certainly be willing to fund them.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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