Monday, April 6, 2015

Will “the Thompson era” unfold at the Brunswick School Department?

We don’t know about you, but we like to think that the Brunswick School Board is supposed to function as a ‘board of directors’ for the Brunswick School Department.  Similarly, we’re delusional enough to expect the town council should do the same for Municipal Government.  In our conception of such things, the ‘directors’ are there to represent the interests of the ‘stock-holders,’ which translates to residents and taxpayers of Brunswick.

Which among other things, is why we’re considered “Mr. Grumpy” by some of our elected leadership.  And happily so, we must admit, because we take it as a badge of honor.

Enough about our self-absorption.  There’s more than enough in town to satisfy the demand.

The recent general election had a surprising outcome or two.  For our purposes today, we focus on Brunswick School Board results.


Pictured above is the swearing in of the most recently elected members, including Sarah Singer, Padre James Grant (judging from his collar,) and Billy Thompson.

We’ve known Billy for some years, and think very highly of him.  At the same time, we can’t help but wonder why an otherwise sane and respectable town resident would submit himself to such punishment.  Let alone offer himself up for the position of Chairman of the School Board.

To each his own, of course, and we’re grateful that Billy would do so, and hopeful that his ascendance to the role might signal a sea change in School Department governance.  Only the shadow knows for sure, and only time will tell, to cite a few trite clichés as is our wont.  Or is it want?

Why?  Because we’ve long believed that our School Department is in need of serious, major reform.  We’ve come to this conclusion after more than 15 years of following town budget deliberations, which are dominated by school department budget specifics.  In the past, we’ve used terms like “the schoolies” and “the Mommy Mafia” to characterize things.  We see no need to change our views.

       Image result for structural problems

As we prepared our thoughts for this post, we initially considered suggesting that our school budgets suffer from ‘structural problems.’  Then it occurred to us that the term is an artful dodge, a deceptive distraction from reality.

                                    Image result for john richardson maine

Best we can recall, we first heard it in the 2003 time frame.  We were newly retired, and had decided to look into the biennial budget then being proposed by incoming Governor Baldacci.  On it’s face, it was staring at a $1.3 billion deficit against a prior budget baseline in the $5 billion range.

We wrote to the local paper, wondering how responsible officials could allow such an irresponsible proposal to come before us.  We’ll always remember how Johnny P responded on the pages of The Ostrich; that ‘no-one was responsible’ for the circumstances.  It ‘just happened,’ as he saw it.

                                   Image result for Hello, Mr. Bonks

That was a serious “vake-up” moment for us, or if you prefer, “hallo, boobilah.”

We realized that ‘structural problem’ was a consultant approved method for dehumanizing governmental mismanagement, overspending, and related budget problems.  “It’s not our fault; it’s the system.”

“We’re doing our best to confront the problem and make the hard choices, but it’s not easy.”

Bull-crap.  Or poppycock.  Every human situation, with very few exceptions, is caused by humans.  And that particularly applies to governmental budgets and the taxes they require to pay for them.

The ‘structural problems,’ if you will, with Brunswick School Department budgets are caused by these circumstances, among others:

  • failure to prioritize the stewardship of physical plant assets provided by and paid for by town residents; broken toilets, sunken floors, collapsed roofs, and more.
  • inability to recognize that spending and achievement are not connected.
  • denial of the reality that unwarranted staff salary increases well beyond inflation are unaffordable and unsustainable; continued belief that all teachers are equally competent and meritorious.
  • absolute inattention to expectations and achievement measures as figures of merit for school system performance, for both students and staff.
  • an abiding belief that the public can be shamed into shutting up and putting up.
  • in short, focusing on everything except ‘the children.’

Here’s a succinct summary in the budgetary domain.  In the 04-05 fiscal year, when system enrollment was at it’s peak of 3,372, the school budget was $27.7 million.  Ten fiscal years later, enrollment is down by nearly 1,000; we operate two fewer schools; and the budget is nearly $8 million higher.  Early ‘leaks’ for the upcoming budget say that Super PP wants a cool 10% increase for the coming year, or another $3.5 million above the current baseline.  That would put total school spending within tickling distance of $40 million.

We could go on and on about this, and unfortunately for you, we probably will at some point in the future.

We’ve been told over and over by those who never met a spending increase they wouldn’t support “that you get what you pay for.”  To which we’ve replied more than once you’re right.  If you increase teacher pay every year, you get more highly paid teachers.  And if you increase department funding every year, even in the face of declining enrollment and fewer building assets, you get a more expensive school department.

Shouldn’t words like ‘performance’ and ‘achievement’ play into this somehow?  Isn’t it time to say STOP, we need to examine the underlying premises on which we manage and fund our school operations?  That we need to find a better way to run this particular railroad?

For now, we’ll close by saying that we hope Billy will say enough of the same old, same old.  It’s time to review the underlying premises, priorities, and realities of Brunswick School Department budgets, and bring common sense and stewardship of the public trust to the system.  This will test his resolve and his skills mightily, since it would place him squarely in conflict with the role usually taken by board members over the years, which is to act as sales persons for School Administration wishes.

We wish him the very best, and send our fervent wishes that ‘new directions,’ a term in use here in Brunswick not that long ago, become the order of the day.

Structural problems?  We don’t think so.

Leadership solutions?  We hope so.


For the interested student, here’s an article from the last few months that drove our interest in this post.

School repair costs could hit $9M

Board member refers to buildings as ‘dumps’



Repairs to the aging Coffin Elementary and Brunswick Junior High schools could balloon up to between $8 million and $9 million.

That’s according to an architectural firm in discussions with the school district about how to make minimal repairs to keep the schools operational for the next decade.

For some on the school board, putting money into the buildings is a necessary evil.

“They’re dumps,” said board member Christopher McCarthy bluntly on Wednesday, lamenting the piecemeal approach taken to extend the lives of the schools, “and we’ve continued to not invest in them for decades.”

Regardless, McCarthy said the buildings need to be fixed.

“To put a Band-Aid on these schools and think they’re good enough for our children is outrageous,” he said.

Also outrageous, he said, was a lack of public input or outcry over the buildings’ conditions.

“Fix the damn schools,” he said. “All of it. Not just pieces of it.”

Coffin Elementary School was built in 1954 and is 21 years past its designed life cycle, according to Lyndon Keck of PDT Architects.

Among Coffin’s problems is the fact that it’s not a sprinklered building, has rusted and rotted exterior door frames, is in need of a new fire alarm and evacuation system, and needs new roofing. A quarter of the building’s structure is made of combustible material, with wood-framed walls between classrooms that are covered in plywood.

The oldest part of Brunswick Junior High School was built in 1959. Additions were built in 1966 and 1976. A portion of the building was repaired and renovated in 1983 after a fire. Floors in six BJHS classrooms have sunken, and some floors are sloping six inches. Portions of the school’s storm drain system have collapsed. Windows are leaking and drafty, asbestos needs to be removed, and a new fire alarm system is needed, among other issues.

Keck said PDT’s repairs would ensure the safety and security of students, “not to make the buildings pretty.”

“I suspect the repair price tag will be substantial,” Keck said.

Early repair estimates for Coffin and BJHS are $2.3 million and $3.5 million, respectively, but those amounts may increase as investigations as to the extent of repairs are more fully realized.

It would take 15-18 months to conduct repairs, according to Keck.

“I’m not thrilled with throwing good money after bad,” said McCarthy. “We throw $8 million at these buildings, and we’re still left with 50- to 60-year-old buildings.”

Board member Sarah Singer said she was concerned that the board has plans to move the fifth grade to the junior high, possibly increasing that school’s student population by 180, when it was in bad shape.

“This should be considered a factor when talking about the state of the facility,” she said.

Keck’s update is the latest in the wrangling over the costs associated with the aging buildings.

In July, the town council approved a $454,080 bond to pay for upgrades to the junior high’s ventilation system.

In December, the school board approved a number of steps to address the district’s aging buildings, including applying for the next round of state funding, drumming up support for a bond to repair Coffin and BJHS, and addressing the vacant Jordan Acres School.


What’s wrong?

COFFIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL was built in 1954 and is 21 years past its designed life cycle.

Among Coffin’s problems is the fact that it’s not a sprinklered building, has rusted and rotted exterior door frames, is in need of a new fire alarm and evacuation system, and needs new roofing.

THE OLDEST PART OF Brunswick Junior High School was built in 1959. Additions were built in 1966 and 1976. A portion of the building was repaired and renovated in 1983 after a fire. Floors in six BJHS classrooms have sunken, and some floors are sloping six inches.

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