Architect: South Portland High School costs driven by programs, site

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SOUTH PORTLAND — School officials and architects Monday night defended a $47.3 million plan to renovate and replace South Portland High School to City Councilors.

The team said the scope and cost of the project are being driven by specific programming needs and challenges with building on the Highland Avenue site, which has been deemed the only feasible location by city planners.

Mayor Tom Coward attempted to lay out some ground rules before the workshop to steer councilors away from questions that would be answered by an independent review currently underway and from questions second-guessing school programming. 

“The thrust of this is to gather information” Coward said. “Basically, everyone is on board with the need for major renovations at the high school.”

While the session, which was broadcast on community television, seemed to allay the concerns of some councilors, others remained unconvinced that some of the features of the new school were needs, rather than desires, and questioned the 1,100-student capacity of the new school. 

“Wants are what you’d love to have to make it be perfect,” said Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, an educator of 34 years who went on to use an analogy. “A map is what I need to get to where I want. A GPS would be a great thing to have.”

School Board member Ralph Baxter said that South Portland requires more credit hours to graduate than other schools. South Portland students need 24 credit hours to graduate, whereas Scarborough students only need 21 credits and Biddeford only 16.

Those extra credits increase the demand for classroom space, especially science labs, which must be equipped with water and gas services.

“This is the kind of building they kind of need to be in to have that stuff,” Baxter said. “They’re doing it now, yes. But we think they will do it better in a building that’s better.”

The current building plan would gut and renovate the oldest portion of the building, removing asbestos. Beal Gym and the South Portland Auditorium will be be kept, but the so-called annex will be demolished.

Dan Cecil, an architect for Harriman Associates, told councilors that there are about $11.7 million in additional costs for the South Portland project than a typical high school project.

About $6.4 million of that is being driven by the need to replace the annex, the large two-story mostly glass structure running along Mountain View Road.

Another $1.36 million in costs stem from the poor soils and storm-water issues of the site, as well as the need to run new electrical and gas utility services to the building.

About $1.5 million has been included so the school can be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Cecil attempted to put the project in perspective of other recent school projects, referring mostly to Biddeford High School, a $34.9 million building currently under construction.

Biddeford’s nearly 249,000 square-foot school, however, is meant to accommodate 1,000 students and does not have as much new construction as South Portland.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Suzanne Godin said the proposed South Portland school works out to about 259 square feet per student, while Biddeford’s is planned for 248 square feet per student and Scarborough has 243 square foot per student.

The additional space in the South Portland plan stems from the need to connect the new construction to Beal Gym, the auditorium and old portion of the school, Godin said.

Other comparisons included the $68 million Mt. Blue High School for 925 students, $57 million Hampden Academy for 800 students, $49.5 million Mt. View High School for 1,100 and $41.8 million Cony High School for 900 students.

Those other projects were completed between 2004 and 2010, Cecil said, and costs have been adjusted to reflect 2011 dollar values to be comparable to South Portland.

De Angelis, however, faulted those comparisons, because they were all state funded, whereas South Portland’s project would be financed only through local tax dollars.

“We’re not looking at something that is going to have a similar burden on taxpayers,” she said.

According to two different financing scenarios prepared by the city’s Finance Department, the city would have to borrow between $41.2 million to $44.2 million. At its peak, the project could add nearly a dollar to the tax rate.

“The question about whether or not the budget is right in your mind for the community is not the question we’re addressing here,” Cecil said.

“We’re trying to show the council, board and community that in fact the cost of this project per student is comparable or less than anything out there right now,” he said

For state-funded projects, Cecil said a justification must be made for every single classroom. Using that rubric, the South Portland project still holds up, he said.

While about $300,000 could be trimmed by eliminating more classrooms by building a 1,000-student school, Godin said the school would not meet state guidelines.

About 1,073 are projected to attend the school in 2017-18, she said. State guidelines would require the district to round up to the next 100. 

“We need to be prepared for 1,100 students,” Godin said.

Voters in 2007 rejected by a 3-1 margin a $56 million plan that would have built a 1,200-student school and added a second gymnasium and artificial turf field.

The high school is currently on warning status for its accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, solely because of the facility issues.

After more than two hours discussing the proposal Monday night, councilors decided to adjourn the workshop, which took place after a business meeting, and continue at a later date.

Coward said he would be meeting with the city manager to schedule another workshop.

Randy Billings cam be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or