On Monday, November 26, the School Board held a special meeting to discuss the plans to renovate Coffin School and the Junior High School. Background on this issue can be found here and here, and an extensive documentation of the problems with those facilities can be found here. That latter link – to the School Department’s Facilities Study page – also includes PDFs of the architect’s most recent plans for the project. The video feed for the entire meeting can be found here on Brunswick TV3′s website (instructions for viewing their videos can be found here). You can also subscribe to receive video downloads of School Board meetings by following the links on this page.
The bulk of the November 26 meeting consisted of a presentation by Mr. Keck, one of the principals of PDT architects and a leader in the design process that brought us Harriet Beecher Stowe School (HBS). What follows is a summary of the meeting and some initial thoughts and reactions gathered from people who were present in the audience or who watched the meeting on TV.
The meeting opened with a brief presentation by Rich Ellis describing the history of the planning process. Michelle Small noted during that presentation that the School Board voted last spring “to focus on Coffin School for K through 2 purposes and not for K through 5 purposes.” Mr. Ellis concurred, noting that this is indeed currently the plan. This does raise one overarching question for the planning process going forward: do we want plans that would make it easy to change elementary configurations at some later date, if a future School Board decides that there might be educational advantages in doing so? The project’s lead architect, Lyndon Keck, pointed out at the end of the meeting that with this renovation project, the Coffin/Junior High School will be nearing – and perhaps exceeding – the ratio of building to open space that planners today generally see as optimal; if the town’s student population rebounds much further, we may face another space crunch. Pursuing this line of thought, Mr. Keck said, “I don’t think as policy makers you should consider this site as an area where you can continue to grow with hundreds of kids, hundreds more.” Board Member William Thompson concurred: “I think that long term – and this should be part of our strategic planning discussion – I think, [the solution] is looking at this as an elementary school campus.” He noted that this would mean “figuring out where a Junior High can be built in the future,” suggesting that a site “perhaps closer to the high school” might be ideal for such a school. It would therefore seem desirable to have maximum flexibility built in to the renovations at Coffin, as future space and grade configurations could need to change dramatically.
Mr. Keck began his own presentation with a consideration of possible sites for a bus facility. Currently school buses are parked on a lot at the rear (i.e. the south side) of Coffin School; that lot will need to be moved if Coffin’s footprint is to be expanded. A series of options were considered. The redevelopment authorities at the former Naval Air Station informed the town that no space would be available there for the next several years. A site in the new Brunswick Commerce Center development off Route 1 is a possibility, but it would need to considerable upgrades. A site is available for purchase or lease at the Brunswick Industrial Park. Finally, the Industry Road site (the location of the former Times Record Building) is also a possibility. Mr. Keck noted that this last option seems to be preferable – the town owns the property, it is next to the fueling facility currently used by the buses and other town vehicles, and it already features a maintenance facility. The architect suggested creating a small addition to that facility to allow for office space, restrooms, and a common room for drivers.
Mr. Keck’s discussion of bus facility options did leave some questions unanswered (although perhaps they have already been answered in less public venues). It wasn’t clear from the presentation whether or not consideration had been given to creating a regional bus facility that would allow Brunswick to share repair facilities with other nearby school districts. Would this be a way of saving costs, or would any savings merely be offset by added inefficiencies? Also, what is the rationale for building the addition to the existing building at the Industry Road site? Given the reality of constrained state and local budgets, we obviously want to be sure that were are focusing our spending on needs that are critical to the educational mission of our schools. It seems that the town’s officials would be well-advised to make public their thinking on these matters.
The rest of the first portion of the meeting focused on the overall site plans for the Coffin/Jr.HS campus, particularly on bus and automobile access to the site. The ground plans for the site seem to have been primarily structured around the desire to provide easy access to the school entrance for buses and students arriving in their parents’ cars. A great deal of the discussion centered on concerns about efficient motor vehicle access to the site, with several School Board members expressing a concern that there would be a bottleneck of cars dropping off students. As some Board members noted in follow-up questions, pedestrian and bicycle access to the site seems to have been given considerably less thought thus far. The plans assume that cyclists will share sidewalks with pedestrians; both cyclists and pedestrians would need to traverse several car and bus outlets in order to arrive at bike racks and the school entrance. In some cases (notably in the drive separating Coffin from the Jr. HS), plans envision raised crossings to slow traffic, but in other cases, it appears that pedestrians would be on their own. It was not clear if the architect was aware that at the other school his firm designed, bicycle traffic has been banned from campus for safety reasons, as the walkways are too narrow to safely accommodate the steady stream of walkers and cyclists (despite this, the bike racks are located at the center of campus, with the expectation that cyclists will dismount and walk their bikes from the edge of campus to the racks). While bike racks were not clearly indicated on the architectural sketch plans for the Coffin/Junior High School site, the architect explained that he envisioned them being near the schools’ entrance doors, as they are at HBS. School Board member Michele Joyce raised significant questions on these points, urging the architects to do more to balance the needs of walkers and bikers with the needs of drivers. She noted that on the current plan, students and parents entering on foot or bicycle from the neighborhoods surrounding the school would need to make their way across many parking areas and traffic lanes, and she urged the architects to devise safer and more efficient means of access for pedestrians and cyclists. Mr. Ellis also noted that the main public view of the site (from Columbia Ave.) would consist of a vast parking area, with the usable athletic fields tucked away in back of the site; he wondered whether those could be flipped in order to produce a more aesthetically pleasing and welcoming view onto the campus.
The discussion then moved to the spatial configuration of the interior spaces. Two plans were presented for Coffin: the first added space by closing off the ends of two courtyards, creating short new corridors with additional space for classrooms or facilities. The second plan (which emerged as the favorite due to safety, efficiency, and flexibility considerations), involved adding a wing to the south side of the school and adding other rooms along existing wings. In both cases, the plans would involve adding space to Coffin for a Pre-K program and consolidating classrooms by grade level (for instance, all of the kindergarten classrooms would be along one hallway). It wasn’t clear if those classrooms would be flexible in use – for instance, if the town at some point wanted to switch to a “small schools within a large building” model, would it be possible to shift some of the kindergarten classes to other rooms in the building, or would we be locked in (without undertaking major renovations) to the current “one big school for everyone” model pioneered with the building of HBS? The K and Pre-K classrooms are larger than the other classrooms; could they be converted to use by other grade levels? And are there classrooms elsewhere in the building that could accommodate Kindergarteners, should a future School Board wish to pursue different grade and space configurations?
The plans for renovations at the Junior High School focus on repairing degraded structural conditions and reconfiguring spaces that are currently awkwardly designed (for instance: ensuring better traffic flow by relocating hallways; ensuring that most rooms have exterior windows and ventilation; etc.). The plan reworks several spaces that are currently open and/or inefficiently used to allow for clustering of grade levels (while preserving their subdivision into smaller communities or “islands” in the current system). The plan also creates relatively large, open “common areas” for the individual grade levels to come together.
In the case of both Coffin and the Junior High School, the plans would consolidate the entrances of the buildings, allowing for only one point of access to the buildings (following what school officials currently consider to be “best practice” in terms of safety), and locating administrative offices where administrators can easily observe those entrance areas. The plans also envision the elimination of the so-called “mobile units” (which, as Rich Ellis noted, are not exactly “mobile,” having been in place for decades). (The removal of those units was supposed to have occurred with the opening of HBS – and indeed their elimination was a major feature of the arguments in favor of building that new school – but the roof failure and subsequent closure of Jordan Acres has made it necessary to continue using them.)
The meeting concluded with information about the remaining steps in the planning process. The next meeting on this issue will take place on December 19 at 4 PM in the Council Chambers at Maine St. Station. These projects would need to be funded by bonds, and a vote on the bonds would need to come between April and June if work were to start during the summer of 2013. This means that the School Board will need to approve a bond proposal in February or March of 2013.