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PAC forms for $41.5M high school bond in South Portland

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PAC forms for $41.5M high school bond in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — A new political action committee hopes to harness the energy of dozens of parents and residents in an effort to convince voters to approve a $41.5 million bond to rebuild South Portland High School.

RenewSPHS on Tuesday evening hosted the first of two advocate-training sessions. The nearly three-hour session began with a tour of the high school and ended with a presentation about the planned renovations and a question-and-answer period.

The tour, which was attended by about 30 people, highlighted what are becoming well-known deficiencies at the school.

Principal Jeanne Crocker said there are seven or eight "far-flung" entrances at the school that must remain unlocked throughout the day – an arrangement that compromises student security.

The proposed $47.3 million renovation plan will leave two main entrances, where visitors will enter into a locked vestibule before being allowed access to the building.

The tour also highlighted nearly a dozen elevation changes throughout the school, which limits handicapped accessibility. Project architect Scott Pakulski, of Harriman Associates, said the elevation changes 26 feet from the main office to Beal Gym.

While the school has an elevator, make-shift wheel chair ramp and a temporary "phone booth" style elevator, Crocker said handicapped students opt for extreme means to get to where they need to go.

"We have had kids in wheelchairs who have chosen to go outside, even in the winter," Crocker said. "It's just too much."

Meanwhile, water damage in ceilings and walls was evident throughout the building, along with areas where the floor is separating from the wall. Crocker pointed out areas of the school containing asbestos, outdated electrical and air circulation systems.

Laura Ellis, a parent of two high school students, said she is well aware of the issues at the school, but was attending the training to solidify that knowledge and understand the proposed renovation.

"Whatever they need between now and Election Day, I'm willing to do," Ellis said.

John Backman, a parent of first-, third- and fifth-graders at Small Elementary School, said at a recent meeting held on a rainy night in the high school library, the books were covered in plastic and buckets collected water dripping through the roof.

"It's really a shock each time," Backman said of his several tours through the school. "It really is deplorable."

The proposed renovation, which would take about three years to complete, would add about 95,000 square feet of space and accommodate 1,100 students.

After the meeting, many of those in attendance sought clarity about how the school's accreditation would be affected if the bond is rejected.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin said the school will never lose its accreditation, as long as it continues to pay the accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Godin said being placed on probation would be the worst possible outcome. While that status would be noted on student transcripts, Godin said it would be difficult to predict how it would affect their chances of getting into college.

"The worst impact is what it does to home values," said Godin, predicting those values will decline. "That's where your talking point is."

RenewSPHS organizer Sue Adams said she is encouraged by the level of public involvement in the push to pass the high school bond.

Adams was also involved in failed 2007 effort to pass a $56 million renovation bond that was defeated by a 3-1 margin. That plan has been scaled back by eliminating a second gym, an artificial turf field and four classrooms.

She said she knows the group has a tough road to hoe between now and Election Day.

The group plans to make bumper stickers and signs, and set up informational tables at community and school events to educate voters. In addition to setting up meetings with local churches, neighborhood groups and organizations, the group has a Facebook page and plans on launching a website, RenewSPHS.com.

"We know we can get this measure passed. People are coming out of the woodwork," Adams said. "We have to be tireless in our efforts to get the word out."

Ralph Cabana, who has served on the Secondary Schools Facility Committee since it was formed six years ago, said the level of community support this time gives him reason to be optimistic.

"Sometimes it seems like we're hanging out in the wind on our own," Cabana said. "My heart is full."

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