The former Hawthorne School and current home to the Brunswick School Department administrative offices. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Over the past few years, Robert P.T. Coffin School has been described as old, tired and past its usefulness, but Brunswick school officials believe there may be some life left in the building. 

The 65-year-old building is home to Brunswick’s pre-Kindergarten through first-grade classrooms but will close next year when the new Kate Furbish Elementary School opens on Jordan Avenue. 

In a letter to the town council, school board members outlined a list of potential uses for the soon-to-be-former school, including a community center that co-locates the school administrative offices with various organizations and nonprofits that serve local families. This option would also involve turning the former Hawthorne School, which currently houses the administration, over to the town. 

Other suggestions included freeing up space for the music and art programs at the junior high school and decommissioning two portable classrooms; moving the REAL School from Brunswick Landing; moving the teen center on Union Street so that Brunswick Junior High School students can walk over after school; hosting adult education classes; creating community gardens; using the gym as shared community and town space for events, sports and performances; setting up a school-based medical clinic; or a combination of multiple uses.  

School officials plan to start planning in earnest this fall, with necessary building renovations tentatively slated for early to mid-2021. 

This year, Coffin was allocated nearly $300,000 in state revolving renovation funds to fix the ventilation system in the gym. If the funds are accepted the school department will need to pay back about $184,000 of that. 

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said earlier this year there had already been inquiries about using the space from the parks and recreation department, and he suspected the community would want to put the space to good use. According to the school board, in order to effectively and safely use the gymnasium, the ventilation system will need to be repaired. 

But some town councilors are wary of spending money on the building, and have questioned whether the building should be demolished. That can’t happen immediately, as the kitchen serves the neighboring Brunswick Junior High School. 

“I distinctly remember being told a couple of years ago that it was beyond repair,” councilor Kathy Wilson said at a meeting last month. The idea that the space was unsafe and going to be too expensive to fix (estimates for repairs totaled around $18 million) in 2013, but that now it has new potential “doesn’t sit with me,” she said. 

There were, and remain, a number of problems with the school. Aside from the air quality issues, The Times Record reported in 2013 that there are flammable ceiling tiles, flammable casework and no sprinklers in some of the classrooms. Exterior doors on classrooms serve as secondary means of egress in case of an emergency, but present safety concerns. There are four classrooms in portable units, meaning kids have to walk across the bus circle. The basement has experienced a constant leak from underground steam lines. One of the classrooms still has a non-functional fireplace.

It’s true that the building is no longer safe to use as a school for 400 kids, school board member Sarah Singer said, but many of the concerns, like the exterior doors, portable classrooms or remaining fireplace are not necessarily bad. 

“If you look at it as an office space for a small community of adults and not 400 kids, those aren’t problematic,” she said. The building is not structurally unsafe, and while the air quality issues in the gym need to be addressed, they are triggered by large quantities of people. The space presents an opportunity for more community gatherings, possibly another place to vote, for the relatively low cost of $183,000, she said.

“I certainly can’t deny it would be helpful in the future,” councilor Steve Walker said, but “given the times we are in now and the economic uncertainties,” he asked if the project could be done later and not now. The funds would be budgeted for in 2022. 

Councilor Dan Ankeles, on the other hand, said he felt time was of the essence. 

“I worried when the pandemic crisis hit… that some really good long term thinking might get cast aside,” he said. “This was the first time in a little while that the (revolving renovation fund) really got a little bit more money than it had in the past.” He worried that with the crisis, this level of funding may not be available in the future and the town could lose the opportunity to have the bulk of a project that could be a local asset, paid for by the state. 

If the building is used to consolidate other offices it could be a more efficient use of tax dollars while also opening up the opportunity to turn Hawthorne into a revenue-generating property that would “easily pay for this several times over.”

“I feel like we would be throwing away a perfectly good opportunity for a long term use for this property,” he said. 

Councilor David Watson asked the school board to finalize a plan for what they hope to do with the school. 

“I don’t like throwing money against no plan,” he said. “I think that’s dangerous. You can convince me it would be good for the town but tell me what you’re going to do.”  

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