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Parents question viability of Portland's Hall School as students attend Cathedral

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Parents question viability of Portland's Hall School as students attend Cathedral

PORTLAND — It was standing room only Monday night at a meeting to discuss the future of Hall Elementary School, with some parents expressing doubt about whether students should ever be sent back to the school.

The building at 23 Orono Road, which was damaged by an electrical fire on Sept. 17, remains closed while renovations and air quality tests are completed.

Until the School Department hears from the testing companies that it is safe to return to Hall Elementary, students will be bused to Cathedral School, at 14 Locust St.

School officials said they are uncertain about when the 435 students will be able to return to Hall.

“We don't have a time frame yet,” Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said. “Certainly not this week.”

The time frame for return depends on the results of air quality tests being conducted by independent contractors and the school's insurance providers. Peter Eglinton, chief operations officer for the School Department, said that the final reports will be made available to public when they are received.

According to Eglinton, work crews started repairing the school the morning after the fire and they are close to finishing some of the more basic work. But the three rooms with the most damage will have to be completely renovated.

While much of the school has been dried and reopened, Rooms 18, 20 and 22 remain closed during the renovation process, Eglinton said. In addition, crews removed all of the baseboards in the school to ensure that the walls are dry and there is no possibility of mold.

Fortunately, he said, the floors had just been waxed and were sealed from the 7,000 gallons of water dumped by the sprinkler system.

It became clear to officials last Friday that students would not be able to return to Hall on Monday morning. Eglinton said they acted quickly to gain access to Cathedral School, which was closed in April 2011 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine. The School Department is paying the diocese $500 a day to rent the building.

“This fortunately is a building, really the only building available, that is completely empty, except that it is set up like a school. You would think that the kids were just on vacation,” Eglinton said. “It's not as big as Hall School, but the teachers jumped on it immediately to design a way to provide a positive learning environment for children.”

Principal Cynthia Remick said that while the space is significantly smaller, with only 14 classrooms, compared with Hall's 24, staff has worked to create a community environment much like the one that was in place at their home campus.

“We have some shared communities, we have some team teaching going on, we have some multi-age learning happening,” she said. “I'm thrilled to be sharing this campus and I'm confident that students will have a fabulous time while they're on this campus.”

Remick went on to say that there are dedicated spaces for the nurse's office, special education, art and music spaces, and students have access to a full size gymnasium.

Maintaining the close knit feel of Hall was something officials said they were concerned about keeping.

“It was important that we keep the school community intact, not to have students splintered off into this school here, that school there,” Caulk said. “To keep our staff together, keep our students together with their peers.”

With a commuter population of around 250 students either walking or being dropped off at school by parents, transportation was a concern for parents and staff at the meeting.

Parents were strongly encouraged to take advantage of the additional bus routes, because parking and space are limited at Cathedral School.

The primary concern expressed by parents Monday had to do with safety at Hall School. One parent, Carol Hill, said that she no longer trusts the building and thinks that it should be torn down.

Officials assured parents that the faulty circuit that caused the fire has been repaired and that no students or staff will be allowed back into the building until it is deemed safe. They also said that they are looking into plans to replace the building, but currently the school is 12th on the state's funding list of schools to be replaced.

Eglinton said a package of around $15 million is already being considered for a November 2013 school building referendum, and the district has started working with an architect to discuss plans for a new building.

An open house scheduled at Hall Elementary for this Thursday has been postponed until the building is reopened.

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.