"Brunswick School Plan Hits a Snag" is today's headline, front page in the Portland Press Herald, the largest newspaper in Maine. The Brunswick Times Record has a similar article: "Elementary Grade Level Regrouping Criticized" as does the weekly Forecaster: "School Reconfiguration Draws Angry Response." Click blue titles for links to articles.
On Monday night April 30th the Brunswick School Board held a televised public hearing on the Educational Specification Report’s recommendation to build a large consolidated intermediate school for grades 3-5. The state will only fund one new building, but the town can pay to renovate the old, small schools as well.
By June 2008 the town must vote through public referendum to accept or to reject the new school due to open in 2010. My children are too old to be affected although they attended one of the old small schools due to shut.
Twenty-eight community members from all 4 elementary school districts testified before a packed room. Almost all criticized the lack of public involvement and information. Most questioned grade reconfiguration and urged the town to build instead a new small K-5 school with state funding, as was originally proposed, or to analyze more options with less bias.
For more information read Size Matters.
Below is my testimony:
The proposal to build a new elementary school in Brunswick with full state funding is a wonderful opportunity for our community to discuss what we value about education and to be involved in the decision making process. This town has a tradition of not only encouraging but also seeking out public opinion and participation. Sadly, compared to other big town projects like the Open Space Plan, the Comprehensive Plan, the Maine Street Station and the land reuse of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, this process has allowed for barely minimal public input.
Tonight is only the second School Department public hearing on the new school proposal in a year and a half. The only forum that openly debated the merits of various options was organized by parents, not by the school department. Building Committee meetings are open to the public, but no time is allotted for public comment. The Educational Specification Report we are discussing tonight is based on single visits to the elementary schools, which were, with one or two exceptions, poorly attended. The lack of public involvement is dangerous because a disenfranchised public might just vote down a new school in frustration when this town desperately needs more space to deal with crowding and new programming.
In order to win public support, we need a new school that reflects our values, yet the Educational Specification Report, despite its title, spent many more pages on building specifications than on educational values. Although many participants voiced support for small K-5 schools, the report concludes that school size and configuration does not matter and what matters is small learning communities. Then the report makes the leap to recommending a K-2/3-5 configuration that would, given our student population, necessitate building a large 800 student intermediate school. This conclusion does not follow from the data if educational philosophy were the driving force instead of building and administrative efficiency.
What are our educational values? For decades this town has had a system of small K-5 schools producing excellent academic results. The original proposal to build a new 350-500 student K-5 school to eliminate decades old portable classrooms created no controversy. By a large majority, the letters and Op-Ed’s in the Times Record were in support of small K-5 schools and equity. The newest member of our school board, Kathy Thorson at-Large won the majority of votes in every single district last November campaigning on a platform of small K-5 schools and equity.
Some people have said that a big consolidated school would solve our equity problems, but buildings don’t solve problems. The visible equity problems between our elementary schools will still exist inside the walls of a big consolidated school, only they will be less obvious to detect. There is concurrence in the academic literature that educational results decline, especially among children at risk, as school size increases. Who will find those lost children in the long halls?
I urge the School Board to vote against grade reconfiguration. Build two small K-5’s within one school building if indeed Longfellow School is too expensive to renovate. We need to start with educational values and design a building to fit our philosophy rather than change our philosophy to fit a building.