BRUNSWICK — Brunswick will spend roughly $184,000 on a new ventilation system for the Coffin School gym, the town council decided Monday, despite reluctance to spend such a sum on a school that officials previously said had outlived its usefulness. 

Robert P.T. Coffin School, built in 1955 for roughly $500,000, has been home to Brunswick’s pre-Kindergarten through first-grade classrooms for decades but will be replaced by the new $20 million Kate Furbish Elementary School, which is expected to open next month if school officials decide to bring students back for in-person instruction. 

John Merryman and his grandson, Noah Merryman, pose for a photo earlier this summer as they bid farewell to Coffin School. John Merryman said he was a student at Coffin when it first opened in 1955, and now his grandson, who will start second grade in the fall, was there to see it close. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to spend more of the last year in the school because of coronavirus, Merryman said, but it will be exciting for Noah to attend the brand new Kate Furbish School when it opens, hopefully in August. Contributed photo

Though officially closed to students, Coffin cannot immediately be demolished because it serves as the kitchen for the neighboring Brunswick Junior High School. Now, some school officials are eyeing its potential as overflow space for junior high students social distancing in the COVID-19 era.

Superintendent Phillip Potenziano told the council that if students do go back in the fall, the junior high could need as many as five classrooms in the old elementary school to make the rooms less crowded. 

Last year, Coffin was allocated nearly $300,000 in state revolving renovation funds to fix air quality problems in the gym, but by accepting, the school department promised to pay back about $184,000 of that. 

School board member Sarah Singer told the council that despite its laundry list of issues, the building is not structurally unsafe, and while the air quality issues in the gym need to be addressed, they are triggered by large groups of people. The space presents an opportunity for more community gatherings, possibly another place to vote, for the relatively low cost of $184,000, she said. 

Councilors Steve Walker, Kathy Wilson and Dave Watson voted against the deal. 

Watson said he thought the area was too small for voting and that he had not seen enough community interest to warrant spending the money. Additionally, he said he would need to see a more concrete plan about the future use of the building. 

“I don’t like operating in limbo, and I see a lot of limbo here,” he said. “There are answers that need to be addressed.” 

Walker said that gathering places like gymnasiums and auditoriums may be a thing of the past due to coronavirus, and previously expressed concerns about investing money in a potentially unnecessary project ahead of an expected economic downturn. 

Meanwhile, Ankeles argued that creating space for children to distance with good ventilation is important, and with about $37,000 per year over five years, especially with that expected downturn, “it’s never going to be this discounted.” 

The pandemic will likely be around for longer than initially expected, he said, but “there will come a time when we want that space,” and if they don’t have it, “it will be too bad.” 

Earlier this spring, school board members outlined a list of potential uses for the soon-to-be-former school, including a community center that would merge 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 of the portable classrooms, moving the REAL School from Brunswick Landing, moving the teen center from 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.

According to Singer, demolition has not been seriously discussed for some time, as cost estimates hover between $500,000 to $600,000. It costs roughly $185,000 to keep the school running annually.

It’s true that the building is no longer safe to use as a school for 400 young kids, Singer said, but many of the concerns for students are not necessarily bad for everyone.

“I don’t think it’s so run down as a building that it can’t function,” she said. “We need to separate the reasons Coffin doesn’t function as an elementary school … versus its use as a building. Conflating those two is a mistake.”

Comments are not available on this story.