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Optimism for replacement of Portland's 'tired' Hall School

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Optimism for replacement of Portland's 'tired' Hall School

PORTLAND — The year was 1956. Dwight D. Eisenhower won a second term as president, Elvis Presley released his debut album, and Fred P. Hall Elementary School was built in the city's Deering neighborhood.

Nearly 60 years later, the aging, wood-framed building at 23 Orono Road could be destined to be replaced.

Earlier this month, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education recommended that Hall School be added to a list of state-approved projects, which could clear the way for state construction funding. The cost of replacing the school is estimated at $20 million, according to a recent study by architecture firm Oak Point Associates.

Hall is at the bottom of a list of 12 Maine schools due for major capital improvements or replacement. The designation doesn't necessarily mean a rebuild is imminent, according to a letter from the Commisioner's office.

"If resources do not allow all the projects on the Approved Projects List to be funded, the unfunded projects will be placed at the top of the Approved Projects List of the next Rating Cycle," the letter states.

Hall School has steadily climbed the state rankings for approved projects, according to School Department Facilities Director Doug Sherwood. In 2000, the state ranked the school 58th. In 2004, the school rose to No. 55. By 2010, it was ranked 12th.

In 2012, the state Board of Education approved six schools for major capital improvement projects. On April 9, Commissioner James Rier added six more schools, which brought the total to 12, including Hall School.

Sherwood said Hall School has been climbing the list, despite stop-gap improvements to the existing building, including repairs to two major roof leaks, emergency exit windows in classrooms, ventilation improvements, and major renovations in the wake of a 2012 fire in one of the classrooms.

But there are some fixes that won't come as easily.

For instance, there is no stand-alone auditorium, gymnasium or cafeteria. Instead, a single space serves all three uses. This means that every day during two hours of lunch service, the school cannot schedule indoor recreation or assemblies, Sherwood said.

Space is an issue in other parts of the building.

To make room for a social worker, the school renovated a closet into a small office.

To provide space for a music room, the school vacated a mechanical room. Today, music stands and instruments mingle with a network of ventilation ducts and massive electrical panels with warning signs.

Roughly half of the school's floor tiles are composed of a mixture of vinyl and asbestos. The library is paneled with stained plywood. A kindergarten classroom is paneled with wallboard that has been painted, but shows large gaps between the panels.

In its heyday, the school's exterior walls were brick at the base, with windows taking up much of the upper half. In the mid-1970s, however, the school was re-insulated to conserve energy, Sherwood said. The large windows were replaced with much smaller panes, which reduced the amount of natural light. The exterior walls were re-sheathed with a wood paneling that has been painted an off-white color.

Today, the exterior paint is peeling in many spots. There are also indications that some of the panels are in the early stages of rot.

On the bright side, the exterior has been adorned with colorful, hand-painted signs, as part of a community project involving students, parents and teachers.

"It's a tired school," Sherwood said. "But it still has some vibrant activity and it still has some pride, and those are things that every neighborhood, every school needs."

Sherwood said the school administration will meet with Rier early next month to discuss the future of Hall School. If funds are available to rebuild, a study would be conducted to find a suitable location.

That study would likely determine that a new school should be built on publicly owned property adjacent to the existing site, Sherwood said. It makes sense to keep the school where it is, because it is so close to Sagamore Village, a 200-unit housing complex that is home to many young families. About 60 students from Sagamore attend Hall, he said.

The School Department requested state funding for Hall School during the past three funding cycles in 2000, 2004 and 2010. East End Community School was approved in the 2000. Ocean Avenue Elementary School was approved during the 2004 cycle.

Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk has said state funding is "the only way we can address our critical needs while reducing the burden on Portland taxpayers.”

“We really appreciate the state recognizing the importance of this critical project,” Caulk said in a news release.  “Replacing Hall has been our district's top priority for building improvements."

Other priorities include renovations for Harrison Lyseth Elementary School, Longfellow Elementary School, Presumpscot Elementary School and Reiche Community School. If approved, the estimated costs for the projects are $11.2 million for Longfellow, $15.3 million for Lyseth, $12.3 million for Presumpscot and $12.2 million for Reiche. 

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