BRUNSWICK, Maine — The Brunswick School Board got a reality check Wednesday night when townspeople largely questioned a plan to build a new 660-student elementary school.
The criticism expressed during a nearly three-hour meeting was less about the proposed school’s estimated $24 million price tag and more about the educational philosophy supporting it.
Nevertheless, the applause that sometimes erupted from a large audience in response to speakers was an indication the board may not have the support it needs to pass a voter-approved school construction bond.
Sarah Singer, who has previously helped lead support for School Board candidates and school budgets, made it clear that there is more work to do.
“The community is not yet sold on this vision,” the Brunswick Community United leader told the more than 50 parents, community members, town councilors, teachers and school administrators who gathered at Curtis Memorial Library.
The board has been expecting to have a bond for the elementary school’s construction ready for a voter referendum this November.
For now, board Chairwoman Michele Joyce said, it’s time to regroup.
“I think that every School Board member is probably going to go home and spend some time thinking,” she said, adding that the board may discuss Wednesday night’s public feedback at its next regular meeting on Feb. 12.
At the beginning of the meeting, Lyndon Keck, the project’s lead architect from Portland-based PDT Architects, presented a new sketch of the proposed school, based on recent feedback from Coffin Elementary School teachers and School Board members.
The sketch depicted a one-story school building that would be built at the site of the former Jordan Acres Elementary School, selected by the board last December. It would house kindergarten, first and second grades, and preschool, which has yet to be implemented.
If a construction bond passed this November, Keck said the school could open by fall 2017. The building would replace the aging Coffin Elementary School, which houses kindergarten, first grade and some second-grade students in a mixed-age classroom.
And it would allow Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, which currently houses grades two to five, to transfer second-grade classes that are currently causing a population bottleneck and may force the board to create a new temporary classroom configuration for next year.
After the meeting, Keck said he won’t begin developing a more solid cost estimate for the proposed elementary school until the School Board is satisfied with a plan.
The $24 million figure is a preliminary estimate that was provided in March 2013, when the board was considering simultaneous renovations of Coffin and Brunswick Junior High School. That plan was rejected because of the project’s $38 million price tag.
The board decided a few months later to pursue a new elementary school because it was only estimated to cost about $4 million more than the $20 million it would take to renovate Coffin, which would also force a relocation of the school department’s bus garage.
And while the board said it’s still committed to renovating the junior high school, that plan has now been delayed.
While some speakers Wednesday said they liked that a new school would include more grades, and therefore create more continuity for students with their teachers and peers, many of them expressed a desire for the town’s elementary schools to return to a K-5 model.
The K-5 supporters said housing more grades in one building would help build a greater sense of continuity and community for students, who would see more of their younger and older peers, including siblings and neighborhood friends, over a more continuous stretch of time.
“The way it’s truncated right now, the continuity of relationships between teachers and students has been disrupted,” Dana Batemen, of Franklin Street, said. “That continuity question is important. I know a lot of teachers miss that connection.”
The K-5 concept existed before the 2011 opening of Harriet Beecher Stowe, when there were three smaller K-5 schools: Coffin, Jordan Acres, and Longfellow Elementary School.
Hawthorne Elementary School, which housed grades 1-5, closed due to a small student population in 2009, two years before Longfellow was shuttered.
“The problem is, we teach in anonymous schools, large schools,” Gretchen Feiss, a River Road resident who teaches at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, said. “The smaller the community is, the more connected kids are and the more known they are in the community.”
The board originally intended to keep three elementary schools, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. It planned to close Longfellow, turn Coffin and Jordan Acres into K-2 schools and then have Harriet Beecher Stowe take grades 3-5.
Though it didn’t satisfy the K-5 philosophy, the system would have given way to a smaller community feel at each of the schools.
But plans changed when Jordan Acres was closed in June 2011, after a cracked roof beam from the previous winter revealed serious deficiencies in the school’s structure.
The board then decided in June 2012 to close Jordan Acres and move all second-grade classrooms to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Besides the comments about a need for smaller schools or K-5 schools, other speakers said the board needs a broader discussion about its educational philosophy before it moves forward with any facilities decisions.
The Rev. Frank Strasburger, who helped the school department pick its new high school principal last fall, noted that the board had plans for such a discussion more than a year ago.
“The central responsibility of the board isn’t to build schools,” he said. “It’s to help the community figure out what we mean by education.”
Kate Kalajainen, of Palmer Street, suggested the school department should evaluate how Harriet Beecher Stowe is working for teachers and parents, because it has now been nearly three years since it opened.
Toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski lamented the increasing number of unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments and how that has put a strain on the budget.
“Folks, we’re at critical mass,” he said, referring to more recent mandates that have required the School Department to pay for students going to nearby charter schools and for a large share of the state teacher retirement fund.
Noting the disparity between the board’s large number of public meetings about facilities decisions over the past 2½ years and the public’s displeasure with the board’s direction, Perzanoski asked the public to continue the strong participation it showed Wednesday night as the board moves forward.
He also urged the public to lobby against the further creation of unfunded mandates from the state, saying the school department’s facilities issues have been exacerbated by a lack of funding from state education aid and for the growing number of mandates created for local schools.
Keck said it’s not unusual for a community like Brunswick to go through difficult facilities processes, especially when it comes to school consolidation.
“What this community is going through is not that different than what most other communities go through,” he said, “which is changing demographics, declining populations, old schools and how do we learn to run the school systems efficiently with less money.”