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No guarantee of state aid for Portland school renovations

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No guarantee of state aid for Portland school renovations

PORTLAND — While the School Board is betting on $30 million in state funding to help build a new elementary school and renovate another, the state remains hesitant to make any promises.

On Tuesday night, the board was expected to hold the first public reading of the final, nearly $40 million renovations plan for several elementary schools developed by Oak Point Associates of Biddeford.

Board members and School Department staff are pinning hopes on receiving the state funding they applied for two years ago for two of the most urgent school projects: a new Hall Elementary School and expansion of Longfellow Elementary School. The aid would significantly reduce the potential borrowing burden for renovations at three other elementary schools.

The amount the district is planning to bond is lower than earlier projections of $46 million and far less than the $72.4 million proposed in other, more elaborate renovation proposals presented by Oak Point.

Peter Eglinton, the department's chief operations officer, wrote in a recommendation to the board released Friday in support of the renovation campaign that the district is likely to receive state funding to renovate Hall, and possibly Longfellow elementary schools. Neither one is factored into the borrowing proposal.

"We recognize the challenge of acting on Lyseth, Presumpscot, and Reiche schools in the absence of a formal state decision on Hall and Longfellow," Eglinton said in the May 31 memo. But, "an official from the Maine Department of Education has indicated a virtual certainty of state funding for Hall; with a good chance for support of Longfellow."

But Jim Rier, deputy commissioner at the Department of Education, said while there is a "high likelihood" that the state will identify Hall for funding in the next construction round, how quickly the district will get the money is uncertain.

He said funding could take a few years, and added that Longfellow is more of a long shot.

"With Longfellow, I'm less confident," he said. "There's a possibility we'll get to it in this particular round, but I can't be certain of that."

School districts receive funding from the state based on where they rank on a priority list that is periodically updated at the discretion of the education commissioner.

The state only funds the top six projects, Rier said, which must also be approved by the state Board of Education.

Despite a fire at Hall Elementary School in September 2012 that caused extensive damage, outdated classrooms and limited space at Longfellow, as well as aging facilities across the district, none of Portland's schools are a high enough priority for the state to provide money for improvements, according to the DOE.

Hall, ranked 12th overall, is the highest-ranked Portland school, followed by Longfellow at 18th and Reiche at 21st. Presumpscot and Lyseth elementary schools are farther down the list.

Schools are rated by the state using several factors, including the state of building grounds, programming, and enrollment. The higher the rating, the higher a school goes on the priority list.

The priority list was last updated in 2011.

Rier said schools not in the top six can move up on the list once they are identified for funding if they are willing to participate in a special state financing program called "interim local financing."

The financing essentially allows the school to jump ahead of other schools on the list by paying interest before the state money is available if the higher-ranked schools are willing to defer, Rier said.

"In a case like Hall, to start doing the project on their own makes paying some interest to start early more palatable," the deptuy commissioner said.

And while that's an option, Portland Facilities Director Doug Sherwood said the administration and the board have not committed to anything.

"It's an option, but I'm not sure we're ready to jump on it yet," he said. "It depends on the timing of when the next number of projects get selected. If two years from now we're still waiting, we can certainly be more aggressive."

City voters would have to approve the financing if the board elects to go that route.

The current projects ahead of Hall on the priority list include four high schools – typically the most expensive projects – that could siphon away more money from the already limited account.

Since a 2004 list update, about 20 schools have received funding for projects, according to the DOE.

The capital funding program dates back decades, but was rejuvenated in 1999 to be more comprehensive, and is now in its third iteration, said Scott Brown, who oversees the program for DOE. 

Brown said the state does not reorganize the priority list in the event of a catastrophe that severely damages a school, such as the fire at Hall.

"If you're asking if the list does change and update, the answer is no," he said. "It could be reflected if they applied again."

The fire, which started early in the morning before students arrived, was caused by faulty electrical wiring. The school's sprinkler system dumped 7,000 gallons of water into classrooms, which caused elevated levels of mold and ruined much of the drywall in the affected classrooms.

Students were allowed to return to school after about a week when an environmental consultant hired by the district deemed it safe. The most damaged areas were sectioned off because of poor air quality.

The only time a school might be moved ahead in line, Rier said, is if, for example, "the school burned flat to the ground."

Schools that do not make the cut in the next round of state-funded projects will likely be able to reapply in 2017, Rier said.

If the board decides to move forward with the recommendations to bond renovations for the three schools and wait on state money for the other two, the City Council would have to act by August to put the bond issue on the November ballot.

At Tuesday's meeting the board also was expected to discuss renovations aimed at alleviating overcrowding at Ocean Avenue Elementary School. Administrators have proposed using $870,000 from the capital improvement program for construction, equipment, furniture and a design fee.

Ocean Avenue, along with the East End Community School, are past recipients of funds from the state's major capital improvement program.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.