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Portland School Dept. move gains council foothold

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Portland School Dept. move gains council foothold

PORTLAND — Confusion reigned during a City Council discussion Monday on a proposal to move School Department central offices to a downtown building.

Councilors took just one action on the $3.6 million proposal: they voted unanimously to hold a public hearing, which was held immediately after the vote.

The public hearing, which was required by City Charter, sets the stage for definitive action next month, when the council will decide whether to borrow $3.1 million and allocate $445,000 in other funds to purchase and renovate the former Goodwill Industries building at 353 Cumberland Ave.

If approved by a super-majority of the council, Portland Public Schools would move its central office, the West Day Treatment Program and the Multilingual and Multicultural Center to the Cumberland Avenue building by the beginning of the next school year.

Prior to the vote, four councilors and Mayor Michael Brennan expressed confusion about the purpose of the discussion and the wisdom of voting to hold a public hearing just moments before the public hearing.

City lawyer Larry Walden acknowledged it was unusual, but necessary because Goodwill Industries wants to move quickly with the sale.

"Unfortunately, it is not an ideal situation," Walden said.

When the hearing began, several supporters – most of whom are employees of the school district – spoke in favor of the project. One unlikely voice of support came from resident Steven Scharf.

Earlier this month, Scharf had opposed the plan during a School Board meeting, but this time he expressed support.

"The project actually has some pluses," he said, particularly with regard to freeing up space elsewhere.

The move would create more classroom space in three city schools if the Central Office leaves Casco Bay High School, the Multilingual and Multicultural Center leaves Lyman Moore Middle School, and other services leave Riverton Elementary School.

If so, Scharf reasoned, the vacated space at Riverton would save the district from having to expand Ocean Avenue School. Scharf also suggested that the parking lot at the Goodwill building "would be ideal for development."

But Scharf wasn't entirely in favor of the project as it stands. The proposed financing for the project is confusing, he said.

"This is five pages of gibberish," he said, while holding a spread sheet from the city's Finance Committee.

On Thursday, Nov. 7, the Finance Committee unanimously recommended the project.

The School Board unanimously approved the proposal during its regular meeting on Nov. 5.

The purchase price of the three-story, 50,000-square-foot building would be $2.7 million, plus an additional $900,000 in renovation costs and other fees. The proposal follows several years of searching for the appropriate property downtown.

The council will discuss the project again during its Dec. 16 meeting.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.