Construction now part of high school life in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — As construction projects go, science teacher Ralph Newell said he has seen more invasive and disruptive work.

On Wednesday, Newell was preparing for his 45th year teaching at South Portland High School, in a classroom on the first floor, facing Mountain View Avenue.

“I’m just happy I’m on this side of the building,” he joked.

On the other side of the building, a $39 million expansion and renovation project is beginning. Steel girders are in place for the new wing that will have classrooms, a front office, library and cafeteria.

The work is more extensive and encompassing than additions Newell recalled, but unlike the library work is done almost next to his classroom, pile drivers should not interrupt his lessons.

Even if Newell and his students remain relatively unaffected by the work now, School Superintendent Suzanne Godin said school life in general will be altered for the next 2 1/2 years.

“The reality is, we have a major construction project going on behind the school,” she said.

When all is done, the school will be expanded from about 200,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet. Principal and interest payments on the 20-year bond approved by voters in November 2010 will approach $54 million, according to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux.

In the school year starting Tuesday, Sept. 4, life on the interior side of the school will be noisier, and students accustomed to crossing a courtyard between building wings will find the route blocked by construction.

The view from English teacher Katie Loubier’s classroom windows looks toward Beal Gymnasium and Martin Field. Both structures remain, but in the way are cranes, front-end loaders and dump trucks.

“I thought it would be dustier, but it hasn’t been too bad,” Loubier said as she set up her classroom on Wednesday.

History and Latin teacher Tom Major took a long view, like Newell’s. Having taught at the school when the cafeteria and arts center were built in 1997, he said he does not anticipate big disruptions from current work.

“Nobody relishes jack hammers and construction equipment, but it will be fine,” Major said.

Godin said the plan is to have the new wing enclosed before winter. Work to modernize Beal Gymnasium will not begin until the conclusion of the winter athletic season, but work on the rear wall of the gym is already in progress.

At the base of Mountain View Road and adjacent to the South Portland Community Center, crews are expected to complete striping the parking lot this weekend.

Martin Field will be open for fall athletics, and replacement of practice fields is underway. A crimp in student life is a loss of parking spaces – about 300 will be available.

Parking for school events will be limited, too. Godin said the department will use Dyer Elementary School and Mahoney Middle School and provide shuttle buses from those lots to the high school.

Because gym renovations will occur through the spring, Godin said the School Department hopes to arrange use of facilities at Southern Maine Community College if the 2013 commencement exercises have to be held indoors.

The original portion of the high school was built in 1952. The section known as “the annex” was built 10 years later. In December 2013, plans call for the annex to be abandoned for the new wing now under construction. The annex will be razed and replaced.

Godin said at least eight portable buildings will be needed to help accommodate displaced students, but Newell is among those who will not miss the annex because it is outmoded, outdated and lacks proper access for students who need special services.

The expansion and renovation will provide space for 1,100 students. Godin said enrollment last year was 865. Projections from in December 2008 do not predict enrollment surpassing 1,000 students until the 2016-2017 school year

Freshman Jackson Haynes said he was unsure of what to expect this fall, but like Loubier, Major and Newell, he is eager to see the finished result.

As he began football practice, Haynes said he heard plenty of noise from the ongoing work.

“But I think it will look good, and it will be a bigger school,” he said.

Ongoing construction led city resident Peggy Cyr to send her incoming freshman to another school. But her older son will enter his senior year next week.

“It feels like everything is in turmoil,” she said.

Cyr supported the school bond, however, and said she recognized the need for upgrades.

“I think (the school) was in terrible shape,” she said. “This was very overdue and it was upsetting to see my son in a substandard situation.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

A courtyard and access road once used by students and delivery vehicles is closed as an addition to South Portland High School is built. Construction work adding 100,000 square feet to the school will be a fact of life for students and teachers through spring 2015.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.