Brunswick schools are only now recovering from the devastating impact of the naval air station’s closure in 2011.

“I think we are just starting to get out of the abyss,” said Superintendent Paul Perzanoski.

School enrollment has plummeted by a third since 2006, when the base closure was announced. Two elementary schools have closed, and consolidation and charter schools have siphoned even more students away, leaving the district with about 2,300 students. Budgets are an annual exercise in cuts and pleading for more money.

“It’s still fresh in the memory because it’s been a painful experience,” said Perzanoski, the superintendent since 2008.

Even though the school district knew for years that the base was closing, the impact was severe and unavoidable. In 2011, just as the base closed, the school budget had a $4.2 million gap, Perzanoski said. In addition to losing per-pupil state funding, the district lost about $1.2 million annually from the federal government for military children. Scores of employees were laid off.

“We called it the perfect financial storm,” Perzanoski said. “That was pretty painful.”

The good news, he said, is that the growing investment at the former base is drawing more people – and families – to the area. Last year, the state subsidy to the district increased from the year before, for the first time since 2008.

“It’s taken five years but it’s stabilizing,” Perzanoski said. “If charter schools had not come along, our enrollment might be going up.”

Students have left to go to nearby Harpswell Coastal Academy, Baxter Academy in Portland and the virtual charter schools.

In neighboring School Administrative District 75, enrollment dropped from about 3,000 students in 2006 to 2,500 today. But the district benefited when it acquired about 11 acres of former base property adjacent to the middle school that it plans to use for athletic fields.

“We’re very excited,” said SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith. “That has worked out very well for us.”

The first few years after the closure were the hardest. The drop in students, the drop in funding and the need to react quickly strained the districts and the surrounding communities.

It spooked some people who thought the closure would hurt the area economy and, in particular, the housing market.

“I was very worried before the base closed. We were facing a major recession at the same time,” said Jane Millett, a real estate agent and city councilor in Brunswick. “I know there were people who moved out of town at the time because they were worried about it.”

A housing glut never bogged down the market, however, because of an arrangement guaranteeing that Auburn developer George Shott, who bought up 700 units of former base housing, would not put it all out on the market at once, Millett said.

“It has played out much better than people thought it would,” she said.

As a city councilor, she’s dealt with the financial impact on the school district firsthand. Even this year’s budget is a struggle, in part because of the ripple effects of the base closure, and also because of the funding crisis felt by most schools in Maine.

Perzanoski said one of the more painful decisions was closing two of the town’s four elementary schools, even though it would mean overcrowding. Initially they hoped to just close one, but he said they had to close Jordan Acres Elementary School as well.

“To this day the (two elementary schools) are both overcrowded,” he said. “If we kept Jordan Acres open, we would have had to come up with another $900,000 each year.”

Millett said she’s hopeful that the school budget piece of the puzzle will drop into place.

“There were some rough times and there still are,” she said. “There are a lot of big problems to resolve. But we need to resolve them together.”

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