Bond questions eyed for Portland elementary school improvements

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PORTLAND — Last month, voters overwhelmingly backed replacing the Fred P. Hall Elementary School at a cost of nearly $30 million.

But Hall is just one piece of a larger facilities puzzle included in a School Department study titled “Buildings For Our Future,” created by Oak Point Associate in 2013. The study looked at the various renovation needs of five elementary schools.

Three years later, Hall is the only school slated to be replaced. The School Board will continue to discuss how to improve the remaining schools.

The projected costs of updating the four remaining elementary schools – Longfellow, Lyseth, Reiche and Presumpscott – totals more than $70 million, according to Oak Point’s data. The cost of replacing Hall will largely be covered by the state, since the school was placed on the Department of Education’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List. Approximately $1.4 million in borrowing will be repaid locally.

However, the remaining schools are farther down on the list, less likely to receive state funding anytime soon. There has been community discussion on getting a bond question on the upcoming November ballot, led by a citizen group called Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.

At an April 28 meeting, the School Board’s finance and operations committees agreed to send the bond discussion out of committee and to the full board. There will be a public forum on May 24, and a possible board vote on June 7. If recommended by the board, it would then go to the City Council.

Mayor Ethan Strimling told the committees he wants the board to “come to (the City Council) with the numbers you need.”

“You’re best argument (for) is this is what our children need,” he said at the meeting.

The downside to borrowing for school improvements is that if passed, it would preclude the remaining schools from receiving any state funding. School Department Chief Financial Officer Ellen Sanborn said at the meeting that the state won’t accept applications for projects that have been successfully passed via referendum.

However, members of the board seemed against the wait-and-see strategy.

“In my opinion, if we continue to wait for the state (funding), we’re all going to be dead,” board member Sarah Thompson said.

The committees also agreed to have staff issue a request for proposals for a district-wide evaluation of facilities. In addition to assessing the condition of all the city’s public schools, it will also look at redistricting and consolidation options.

Consolidation is not necessarily a new topic. There was discussion last year about a possible combination of Hall and Longfellow into a single, larger school, based on a suggestion from the MDOE. The board ultimately decided not to pursue that option.

But consolidation could occur at the Lyseth and Lyman Moore Middle School campus. A memo from Sanborn to the committees stated creating a single school to house both sets of students likely “would be something a consultant would be evaluating.” Because of that, she wrote the committees should “consider the impact of any interim work you may want to recommend for either school now.”

That doesn’t mean interim work won’t be done. Just this year, an access ramp was removed at Reiche for safety issues, and more renovations are coming this summer.

Sanborn said the goal of the assessment is to provide a multi-year plan for facilities improvements that is independent from the capital improvement plan. Sanborn’s memo said the time frame for issuing an RFP and receiving a final report would be about five months.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.