BRUNSWICK, Maine — In a long-awaited decision, the School Board on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to move fifth-grade students to Brunswick Junior High School starting in fall 2015.
The vote came after months of discussion about how to ease overcrowding at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.
There was palpable relief after the vote, but parents and board members alike expressed lingering concerns about funding, capacity and what effect the move will have on plans to build a new school.
The board voted 7-2, with Michele Joyce and Rich Ellis dissenting, to pursue the middle school option for the 2015-2016 school year.
The vote followed two hours of debate over three alternate options that were ultimately abandoned.
It is still unclear if moving the fifth grade to the junior high is a permanent programming decision or a temporary solution to overcrowding. Superintendent Paul Perzanoski acknowledged the plan could be revisited if too many issues develop.
Board Members also questioned if the $215,300 cost to set up a four-classroom portable complex to accommodate the fifth-graders would wind up growing, and what effect it might have on next year’s budget.
The most concern appeared to center on what moving the fifth grade might mean for the board’s existing plan to build a new kindergarten-grade 2 school.
Moving the fifth grade requires the board to reconsider its construction priorities and possibly flip its attention to renovating the junior high, board member James Grant said, acknowledging that such an abrupt shift would be like “turning a battleship on a dime.”
Others agreed, and expressed concern that if moving the fifth grade is a long-term solution to overcrowding, Brunswick might not be able to justify its bid for state aid for new school construction.
“We are changing three-quarters across the stream we’re trying to cross and I think we’re going to land in the middle of it,” board member William Thompson said.
Equity emerged as the primary theme of the meeting, with some board members arguing that several smaller schools provided more equal education, while others contended that Brunswick’s history of inequitable schools requires it to embrace larger, unitary schools.
A proposal to create two K-5 schools by moving students to Coffin Elementary, suggested by Ellis two weeks ago, was dropped in a narrow 5-4 vote.
In defense of his proposal, Ellis presented data indicating that test scores for poorer students have declined since Stowe opened in 2011.
“I don’t think we’ve delivered equity, in fact, I think we’ve delivered the exact opposite,” Ellis said.
Others, like board member Janet Conners, warned splitting up students would increase inequity, creating a distinction between schools that were more or less desirable.
In addition, the cost to renovate Coffin Elementary to accommodate the new students, estimated to be between $19 million and $23 million, turned some board members off, although several disputed the accuracy of the figures.
Cost was also the primary reason the board abandoned an option to move the second grade to Coffin Elementary. The move would require 10 new portable units, for an estimated $1.2 million.
“Investing money into Coffin, in my mind, is a fool’s errand,” board member Christopher McCarthy said.
In another 5-4 vote, the board also dropped a proposal to set up a magnet program at Hawthorne School, over concerns it would be even more likely to create inequity. But in a separate unanimous vote it authorized Perzanoski to develop a magnet program for the School Department.
Speaking after the meeting, several parents expressed discontent with the board’s decision.
Kathleen Funderburk was skeptical that the board would find the funding to put the plan in action, suggesting that it would end up defaulting to the cheapest option: maintaining an over-crowded school.
“There’s no law against having 25 kindergartners in a class, or 30 fifth-graders,” she said.
Others, like Becky Wilkoff, were dismayed at the vote’s consequences for Coffin School, which was set up as a temporary kindergarten through first grade school following the closure of Jordan Acres School in 2011.
“Coffin School was an emergency Band-Aid,” Wilkoff said. “Among other things, I am just blown away that a decision was just made to keep that.”