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South Portland parents unnerved by plan to close Mahoney Middle School

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South Portland parents unnerved by plan to close Mahoney Middle School

SOUTH PORTLAND — About 25 parents urged the School Board Monday night to use caution when considering the superintendent's proposal to move to a consolidated middle school.

South Portland currently has two middle schools, one more than is recognized by the state funding formula causing local taxpayers to pay more for education.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin has proposed closing Mahoney Middle School for the 2011-12 school year and sending the 350 students currently attending it to Memorial Middle School.

Godin's proposal was presented to a standing room only crowd of more than 100 people at the Skillin Elementary School gym on Monday night. 

It's part of a plan to meet reductions in state funding anticipated over the next two years and the City Council's budget guidance to produce a budget that doesn't increase taxes. South Portland is planning on losing $2.3 million in state funds next year and perhaps more the following year.

Godin's budget also eliminates 31 jobs – requiring 29 layoffs, outsourcing custodial services and instituting pay-to-participate extracurricular activities.

The consolidation would put South Portland in-line with state standards, Godin said, of having 700-750 students at Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road and save the district nearly $900,000 a year. 

Although the consolidation would not take place for two years, the move has budget implications this year.

Godin has proposed to operate the school next year using $1.2 million of the district's remaining $1.9 million in federal stimulus funds, a one-time lump of money that must be spent by Sept. 30, 2011.

The school would be closed for the 2011-12 school year, leading to the elimination of 17.5 positions. Godin said a committee would be formed to plan for the closure and study issues relating transportation, scheduling and converting Central Office into classrooms.

If approved, Godin said board members could always reconsider the consolidation plan next year. If they reverse course, however, the board would have to carve out operating costs for the school as well as find savings to meet another anticipated cut in education funding, she said.

While a consolidated middle school has been on the city's radar for years, this is the first time it has ever been officially proposed. A school facilities committee recommended the consolidation five years ago, with the caveat the city win state construction money for a new school.

Parents questioned the speed by which the plan was moving forward and questioned the wisdom of closing a school without having an adequate facility to send the students to.

"If this was part of a construction plan, you might be able to convince me," Simmons Road resident Glenn Ekholm said.

Godin's plan calls for the use of six "double-wide" portable classrooms that would function as 12 classrooms. Even if the city receives state money for new school construction, the portables would be used for the next five to six years.

If state money is not received, the portables, which would be rented annually, could be used for a lot longer, she said.

The consolidation was presented by the city's two middle school principals, who said it was the only option to maintain programming for students.

Memorial Middle School Principal Megan Welter said that having more students in one building may actually increase the "depth and breadth" of student offerings.

"The smaller the number of students the more limited your options will be," Welter said. "The more students you have, theoretically, the more teachers you will have, and the more flexibility there will be."

Parents, however, were not easily convinced. Many called for the board to slow down the process.

"This is way too fast – way too much," Vista Drive resident Janet Steady said. "It feels like a crazy ride."

Cranberry Circle resident John Heffernan said the board should not make drastic systematic changes to what he believes is a short-term funding crisis.

"This is a financial storm and all storms pass," he said.

Massachusetts Avenue resident Lisa Fitzgerald was concerned that the same students who were put into larger classrooms as part of the redistricting process two years ago would be the same students would be adversely affected by the consolidation proposal.

"The kids you are going to be hurting are the same kids you're hurting now," she said.

The School Board, which scheduled budget deliberations on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, will vote on a budget proposal and consolidation proposal on Monday, March 8.

The City Charter requires the board present a budget to the City Council, which sets the bottom line for school spending, by March 15.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net