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South Portland won't seek state funds for high school, eyes June 2010 bond vote

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South Portland won't seek state funds for high school, eyes June 2010 bond vote

SOUTH PORTLAND — School officials hope to ask voters to approve borrowing to pay for renovations at South Portland High School and will not apply for state funding.

School Department business manager Polly Ward said the state has indicated there could be up to $180 million available for major capital school construction projects, but has not indicated how those funds will be allocated. The state Board of Education is expected to accept applications for the next round of state-funded capital improvements from November until June 2010.

But Assistant Superintendent Steve Bailey said the Secondary School Facilities Committee will not submit an application for state funds for the high school. Instead, the committee will meet with the City Council on Monday, Oct. 26, to discuss placing another local bond proposal before voters next June.

Mayor Tom Blake said the meeting will be an information session for the council and a decision will not be made on a referendum until January. 

Voters defeated a $56 million bond in 2007 by a 3-to-1 margin. Since that time, the committee has been trying to scale down the scope and cost of the school project by eliminating an artificial turf field and second gymnasium, and reducing the overall size of the building. 

Bailey said the committee still has not finalized a revised high school plan, but noted that the goal is to reduce the borrowing to between $40 million and $45 million.

"It's definitely less than it was before," he said.  

The changes being considered by the committee address two major concerns voiced by residents in a follow-up survey, but may do little to allay concerns of residents who criticized school officials for not submitting an application for state funds. 

At the time, school officials said they were uncertain when the state would reopen the capital construction program and that issues at the high school, which is currently under a warning status for accreditation, needed to be addressed as soon as possible. Those issues include handicapped accessibility, student security, asbestos and poor air quality, among others.  

This summer, voters approved a $5.8 million bond to begin updating the school's electrical and fire systems, but the School Department has maintained that a more comprehensive renovation will be needed. 

Bailey said the department will not submit an application to the state for the high school project because the it does not believe the facilities issues are severe enough to compete with other schools that will apply. School districts that have recently consolidated and those that are overcrowded would be more likely to get funded during the next cycle, he said. 

"The likelihood of South Portland replacing some of those projects that have been waiting for years, and some decades, is very slim," he said, noting South  Portland did not apply during the last finding cycle. 

Bailey also said that timing is a major issue. If the high school project is approved for state funds, the project would not likely move forward until 2012 or 2013. The department can't wait that long to address concerns outlined in its accreditation report, he said, and a June bond would allow the district to begin construction in spring of 2011. 

By attempting to move forward more quickly, the committee hopes to be able to capitalize on what has become a very competitive construction market brought on by the recession. 

"We want to get this out in this very favorable bidding window with regard to work coming in at far-reduced bids than the actual cost estimates had been," Bailey said.  

The department will submit applications for state funding for repairs for Mahoney and Memorial middle schools.

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