Sun, Dec 21, 2014 ●
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Superintendent's Notebook: Portland must invest in school buildings

Opinion

Superintendent's Notebook: Portland must invest in school buildings

If you own a home, you probably take stock of it periodically to identify what repairs or renovations are needed. Problems ignored too long almost always cost more to fix.

The city of Portland goes through a similar process. Every year, the Portland Public Schools and other city departments identify the most urgent public improvement projects. The City Council decides which projects will be funded through the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan.

This year, the Portland Public Schools has an extraordinary opportunity to solve several facility issues at once by purchasing a Cumberland Avenue building owned by Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. The building has enough room to house Central Office, the Multilingual and Multicultural Center, and the West Program, which serves students with a variety of special education needs.

Currently located in rented space in Falmouth, the West Program will need a new home next June. West students will be able to take advantage of resources in downtown Portland, such as the Portland Public Library.

Moving Central Office out of the building that it now shares with two high schools will allow one of those schools, Casco Bay, to accept more students. The nationally recognized school has had a waiting list for several years.

Purchasing the Goodwill Industries buildings will have other benefits:

• Portland Adult Education will be able to remain in its new location at the former Cathedral School on Locust Street for at least three years. The school’s spacious, downtown location has worked well for PAE’s staff and students.

• Central Office and Multilingual staff will work near their colleagues at Portland City Hall and they will be close to service agencies that partner with the district.

During the past six months, our staff looked at more than a dozen buildings available for lease or purchase. The Goodwill Industries building is by far the best fit for our needs, and it also is much less expensive than most of the alternatives.

The Board of Public Education voted unanimously in support of the building purchase. The City Council’s Finance Committee recommended that the full council appropriate funds and authorize a bond to acquire the property. A final decision is expected in December.

We want the Portland Public Schools to be parents’ first choice of where they send their children. That requires us to provide excellent facilities, as well as a great staff and learning environment.

Once we’ve resolved the location of West, PAE, the Multilingual Center and Central Office, we need to turn our attention to the five mainland elementary schools that require major repairs or replacement.

Hall, Reiche, Lyseth, Longfellow and Presumpscot fall short of what we expect for safe learning environments that support academic excellence. Some of those schools use modular classrooms and even closets to house students and staff. Several buildings fall short of Americans with Disabilities Act standards and some lack safety features such as sprinkler systems. They also lack adequate space for a full range of educational activities, including art, music, physical education, hands-on learning and pre-kindergarten.

Last June, the Board of Public Education approved a plan to seek voter approval for improvements at the five schools. The board proposed holding a referendum on three of the schools this month, but the City Council’s Finance Committee decided to wait until June 2014. By then, the district hopes to know whether the state will help fund the projects at Hall and Longfellow.

Our district is paying the price for years of deferred maintenance and delayed basic upgrades. Let’s give our children the great schools that they deserve.