Portland panel seeks input on $61M school construction plan

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PORTLAND — A public hearing on a nearly $61 million plan to upgrade and modernize four elementary schools will likely be held next month.

At its meeting on Dec. 22, the School Facilities Ad Hoc Committee agreed to move forward on a proposal that calls for spending the money to substantially renovate and update Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche schools.

The spending package as now proposed reduces the school bond initially requested by the School Board early last summer by about $10 million.

The plan no longer includes adding a second floor at both Lyseth and Presumpscot, and also eliminates playground upgrades and outdoor learning spaces at all four schools.

In addition, the proposed spending would also reduce the initial size of the new gyms and remove the addition of locker rooms from Longfellow, Lyseth and Presumpscot.

However, the proposed bond, which would ultimately require voter approval, does call for a full-time project coordinator, as well as installing a new solar water heater at Reiche.

The modified bond proposal was put forth by Mayor Ethan Strimling and School Board member Marnie Morrione, who co-chair the ad hoc committee that also includes three city councilors and three other members of the School Board.

While each member of the committee said they were comfortable moving forward with a $61 million spending package, Councilor Nick Mavodones said, “We owe it to the taxpayers to have more than one option to discuss.”

That’s when he suggested that the School Department and the School Board review what they might be able to accomplish with a $35 million bond.

“I’m not necessarily advocating this, but one idea would be to give the School Board full discretion to spend $35 million,” he said. “No doubt there is (a) need” for capital improvement work at each of the four schools, but “there’s a reality here that we can’t afford it all.”

Mavodones added, “when talking about this, we need some reasonable alternatives. As this (proposal) is more in the public eye, the more I hear from residents concerned about the tax impact.”

Even reducing the school construction bond by $10 million would still add about 60 cents per $1,000 of valuation to the tax rate, the ad hoc committee was told at a prior meeting.

Mavodones also said city leaders and residents “need to recognize there are consequences” to borrowing such a significant sum, which could negatively impact other vital capital projects for both the school and the city, as well as the yearly operational budgets for both.

Arguing in support of the $61 million school construction bond last week, Strimling said, “The adjusted project scope doesn’t have an overly adverse impact” on education.

Superintendent Xavier Botana agreed, saying the spending package as now proposed would not “compromise the educational programs” the school district offers.

Overall, Strimling said, “This (proposal) strikes a pretty good balance of weighing taxpayer concerns without impacting educational integrity. This (represents) significant savings.”

In summing up his thoughts, Councilor Justin Costa said, “There are tremendous capital needs and, in my mind, we are getting close to something I could coalesce behind. I believe we need to do something of this order of magnitude. Otherwise we’re just racking up deferred maintenance.”

On the other hand, Costa also agreed with Mavodones when he said, “It’s not fair to anyone to pretend that we’re not making choices.” That’s why he said he wants to see all the possibilities before reaching a final decision.

Anna Trevorrow, chairwoman of the School Board, felt the $61 million bond “makes sense” because it “does something toward meeting the devastating needs” at the four schools.

And, she said, there would be “real implications” if the spending package were reduced much further.

Strimling agreed, saying the city would be “making a big mistake if we don’t provide the tools needed for 21st century learning. I think it’s fair to say that (while) there are costs to do this, there are costs if we don’t.”

In wrapping up the meeting last week, he said a final date and time for the January public hearing would be confirmed and announced within the next couple weeks, although the likely date is Jan. 19.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.