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Preliminary report says Portland schools are under-utilized

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Preliminary report says Portland schools are under-utilized

Task force seeks more nuanced information

PORTLAND — The group studying school facilities received a preliminary report on building capacities Monday night that suggests most schools are under capacity.

However, members of the Comprehensive Use and Facilities Task Force pressed their consultant, the New England School Development Council, to add some caveats to the information before releasing a final report to the public. 

The building capacities outlined Monday night are the result of NESDC's visits to each of the city's 15 mainland and island schools. The analysts then counted the number classrooms that could be used for a variety of subjects, excluding portable classrooms and dedicated rooms used for art, music and the like. 

Using the latest student populations, they then calculated a
current operating capacity by putting 25 students into each classroom –
the absolute maximum in the district's range of class sizes.

The group then analyzed deficiencies in each building's capacity to deliver services, including nurses' offices, special education and functional life skills facilities, conference areas and teacher work stations. In buildings that lacked adequate facilities, the group reallocated classrooms to meet those needs, for a planned operating capacity.

Using this method, most school facilities throughout the city are considered under-utilized.

One of the few exceptions is Presumpscot Elementary School. NESDEC Planning Associate Margery Clark said the school currently supports its 271-student population, which includes preschoolers, by using six portable classrooms. Clark said portable classroom use presents concerns for student safety and health, since they are detached from the school and have no running water.

Once those portable classrooms are taken offline, Presumpscot's capacity drops significantly, from 314 students to 154.

Deering High School is also considered over-enrolled, causing congestion in both hallways and vehicle conjestion in the surrounding neighborhood streets. There are 1,158 students enrolled at DHS, but with classrooms reassigned to address efficiencies in the school's nursing and science facilities, the planned capacity drops to 1,139. 

"This building, as it stands now, is over-enrolled," NESDEC Planning Associate John Kennedy said. "The parking lot is full every day and there is a lot of congestion."

Most of the other school facilities are considered under-enrolled in the analysis. Lyman Moore Middle School could hold 835 students if class sizes are maxed out; there are 542 students currently enrolled.

However, Planning Associate Donald Kennedy said NESDEC is not recommending the district fill its classrooms to maximum capacity. 

"You don't want to try to run your schools at (full) capacity all the time," Kennedy said. "You wouldn't be able to offer a really quality, 2st century education to those children." 

Kennedy said the analysis does not fully account for the diversity of the district, where 26 percent of all students are English Language Learners and 40 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

School Committee member Jaimey Caron, the task force chairman, pressed NESDEC to develop a more nuanced analysis for the final report, which will also project student enrollment over the next 10 years. 

"It's my hope you will calibrate these numbers to the Portland experience," Caron said. "As it's presented now, it's raw data that has not been filtered to our specific situation."

Portland High School may present the starkest example of the hazard of the capacities outlined in the preliminary report. PHS currently has 909 students enrolled, but NESDEC projected the 250,000-square-foot building could handle 1,427 students.

"Portland High School was built at a time when it was not uncommon to put 50 kids in a classroom," John Kennedy said. "Not the best idea, but that's what was done in those days."

The task force, formed nearly a year ago to develop a long-range facilities plan for the district, is scheduled to present a preliminary report and hold a public hearing on April 27 at Deering High School. A final report and second public hearing could come as soon as May 11, with the School Committee receiving the report on May 20. 

The final report is expected to address school facilities in light of declining student enrollment, specialized programming requirements and options for maintaining aging buildings. 

School Committee member Robert O'Brien said he hopes the information from the year-long study will be presented in a way that does not reignite old political battles.

"I hope the end result is not what we started with, which is the misconception about what these schools can hold and a directive from the public to start maximizing space based on these numbers," he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.