As years go by, Brunswick still waiting on a new high school

Mar. 17—Amid a renewed push from Brunswick residents and officials who argue their high school is long overdue for replacement, the Frederick County Board of Education is set to examine options for accelerating its stalled construction timeline.

Brunswick High School, originally constructed in the early 1960s, is the oldest high school building in Frederick County. It hasn't seen any major additions or renovations since 1992, when it received a new gym.

The school lacks adequate lighting, classroom space, weatherproofing and security features. A 2019 feasibility study found it was not in compliance with energy, mechanical, electrical, or building codes; wasn't accessible to students with disabilities; and lacked modern technology systems.

Although the school board voted nearly four years ago to proceed with a replacement that was tentatively scheduled to be ready by 2026, the project has since fallen further back in FCPS' construction queue. Under the current timeline, a new Brunswick High won't open until 2033 — 14 years after the board approved it.

A 2019 estimate said the project would cost about $94 million, but that figure will now be higher due to inflation, FCPS Chief Operating Officer Paul Lebo said Friday.

FCPS officials say they sympathize with the community's complaints, but are constrained by limited state funding and struggling to meet diverse capital needs at aging buildings across a growing county. The building isn't ideal, but it is safe, they have said.

Students, parents and city leaders, meanwhile, have turned out to recent school board meetings in force, arguing that the building needs dire attention — and, more broadly, that the district and state should reexamine their process for planning and funding school construction projects.

"We really need to figure out a better way to do this," Brunswick Mayor Nathan Brown said in an interview Friday.

What's wrong with the building?

The 2019 feasibility study said Brunswick High School was "well maintained" given its age, but needed a host of repairs.

The school's roof was deemed to have "neared the end of its useful life." Its windows and ceilings were listed as being in poor condition. Leaks throughout the building meant that "existing mold and mildew [were] a major concern," the report said.

Water seepage frequently caused paint to peel, which meant employees often repainted walls, the report said. The floor was "cracked and uneven" in some locations, it added.

When engineers examined the school to compile the report, "the majority of the lights in the building were in various states of failure."

Mathilda Robinson, a Brunswick senior whose mother is among those advocating for a new school, said in an interview this week that many teachers keep lights off or use floor lamps during class. The standard overhead lights often flicker, or keep students from seeing the projector.

In the past two years, Robinson said, she's only had one teacher regularly use the overhead lights.

Students fill their water bottles at home, Robinson and others said, since much of the school's water tastes bad and is oddly colored.

The feasibility study also found that the school was too small to meet modern requirements. Its auditorium, stage and music spaces are outdated.

Plus, the building does not meet requirements outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Students in wheelchairs would be unable to access many classrooms, drinking fountains and bathroom stalls, the feasibility report found.

Students and employees must walk through an outdoor breezeway to access the wing of the school that houses career and arts classes. There are no bathrooms in that wing.

Robinson, who spends part of her day at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School's Academy for the Fine Arts, said she notices a marked difference in the environments at the two schools.

"It does feel like my mood changes," Robinson said, "just seeing the difference in facilities."

Why was the project pushed back?

After reviewing the feasibility study in 2019, school board members weighed four options for improving Brunswick High School.

District staffers recommended an extensive renovation of the existing building. But many community members weren't happy with that plan, since it wouldn't have added square footage and would have required students to spend several years being shuffled between portable classrooms.

After impassioned public comment at a packed school board meeting in June 2019, members voted 5-2 to proceed with a different plan — demolishing the current building and constructing a new one.

The board approved an Educational Facilities Master Plan (EFMP) that showed the project finishing by 2026.

There was one catch: The engineers and architects who compiled the Brunswick feasibility study and estimated costs operated under the assumption that the new Brunswick High School would be big enough for 1,000 students.

But it turned out that might be unnecessarily large.

At the time, Brunswick had about 750 students, and it was projected to gain about 120 more over the next 10 years. Board members worried that the state — which covers about half of FCPS' school construction costs — wouldn't pay for a building so big.

So, when the board decided to build an entirely new school, it added the caveat that it should have a capacity of 900 students, rather than 1,000.

Members hoped that would save FCPS money — though it was unclear how much.

The 1,000-student option was slated to cost about $96 million in 2019 dollars, about $20 million more than the renovation option.

Then-Board President Brad Young asked Lebo at the June 2019 meeting if the district could calculate a new cost estimate for the replacement with a smaller capacity.

Lebo said he could bring those figures to the board "with ease" by August of that year.

Advocates in Brunswick said they never learned what that revised cost estimate was or how it may have affected the project timeline.

Last month, Brown, the mayor; Hope Bonanno, who chairs the city's Brunswick High School New Build Committee; and others submitted a Public Information Act (PIA) request. They cited Young's and Lebo's exchange at the 2019 meeting, and asked for the cost estimate that came from it. They were told that none existed.

That frustrated Brunswick residents, who felt the response showed that "FCPS central office staff never took the Board's approval of the Brunswick High School replacement project seriously," according to a letter signed by Brown and Bonanno and submitted to the school board last week.

In an interview with the News-Post on Friday, though, Lebo said FCPS did calculate a revised cost estimate, though not in response to Young's request.

The estimate showed the project would have cost $94 million in 2019 dollars.

The higher cost of the replacement project was not the sole reason the project was pushed back to the current 2033 opening, Lebo said. The district treats the EFMP as a rough "road map," he said, and no long-term construction plans are set in stone.

FCPS has to shuffle projects around based on many factors, including development and capacity challenges. That shuffling is natural, Lebo said.

"It's part of the budgeting process, because conditions change every year," he said.

Brunswick wasn't the only school that saw their construction delayed, Lebo said — a Liberty Elementary project was pushed back the same year. Meanwhile, Valley and Green Valley elementary schools were pushed up.

"Brunswick didn't get singled out," he said.

What comes next?

At the most recent school board meeting, members voted 6-1 to have FCPS compile a presentation on how to accelerate the timeline for a new Brunswick High School.

The board will receive the presentation before June, members said. By July 1, it must approve an updated EFMP to guide the district's future construction projects.

Elected officials and district leaders alike have said they want to have more regular discussions about school construction needs, rather than relegating the topic to the yearly approval of the EFMP.

"I do think that bringing it more to the forefront would be a benefit," Lebo said at the March 8 meeting.

Lebo added that the ideal solution would be to negotiate more funding from the state government, so FCPS could have more flexibility in projects it pursues. That kind of change sometimes happens when communities make their needs clear to those who control the purse strings, he said.

"Advocacy goes a long way," Lebo said.

Board President Sue Johnson expressed frustration during the meeting with the complex bureaucracy that governs school construction projects. It's hard to understand which agencies have the power, she said, when the school board, the school district, the county government, the state government and others are all involved.

"Who is actually making these decisions?" she said. "We're the ones elected, and I feel like sometimes, our arms our tied with our recent decision making. ... I find that troubling, and I need to know how we can break some of that loose, so that we feel like we can drive some of that process better."

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek