Portland panel sticks to Hall School plan as cost rises

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PORTLAND — The committee tasked with overseeing reconstruction of the aging Fred P. Hall Elementary School is sticking to its original access plan.

Replacing the aging school at 23 Orono Road is now expected to cost up to $28 million, or $8 million more than originally planned.

The Hall School Building Committee originally recommended a site plan with access to the new school from Riggs and Lomond streets. But the committee was forced to re-evaluate that plan after a nearby property owner offered to sell his lot on Warwick Street for an access road.

The Maine Department of Education asked the committee to consider the parcel before it would approve the project.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the committee, said the panel reaffirmed its original belief that access via Riggs and Lomond is the best course of action. He said it will provide more separation between the entrances, and would create less chance for traffic jams. He said the increased separation is important in case of a motor vehicle accident.

“With greater separation you’re pretty much guaranteed there’s always at least one vehicular way out,” Suslovic said.

The Warwick Street property, owned by Holm Avenue resident Robert Hains, is just over 7,000 square feet. Hains offered to sell it to the city for $81,000.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson, who is also on the committee, said access via Riggs and Lomond still makes the most sense from a “traffic-and-flow” perspective.

“We explored (the Warwick Street possibility) and still felt as though the original plan was the one we wanted to go with,” Thompson said.

Hall was placed on the state’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List last April, making it eligible to receive state funding. An original plan approved by the School Board called for $20 million of state spending, but Thompson said the cost has gone up, based on estimates from architects at Oak Point Associates.

Tyler Barter, senior architect at Oak Point, said they are just beginning the process of building the budget, but that the estimate is now between $27 million and $28 million.

He said part of the reason for the increase is the original estimate was a few years old, so the cost of construction has gone up. He also said the state has agreed to fund more space.

Suslovic said the committee will now have to make its case to the state for the access route via Riggs and Lomond. He said the state ultimately gets to decide whether to accept the recommendation, since “they’re writing the check.”

If the state ultimately decides it prefers an alternate access route, Suslovic said the city will have to look at whether it wants to have that aspect be locally funded. However, he said that would be “a tall order” to put on the taxpayers.

“We have to wait and see what the state comes back with,” Suslovic said.

Riggs and Lomond streets are unapproved city streets, which will have to be brought up to city standards.

Under the current schedule, the concept approval application would be presented to the state Board of Education construction committee on Jan. 4, 2016, according to School Board documents. It would then be presented to the the state board on Jan. 13.

A referendum on replacing the school is tentatively slated for next spring. Construction is expected to begin in May 2017, and September 2018 is the projected opening of the new school. Capacity of the new building is projected at 525 students, requiring a school of 75,000 square feet.

The committee is also looking at several aspects of the project that will have to be locally funded. They include improving energy efficiency, security upgrades, upgrades to the gymnasium, and repaving and rehabilitation of Orono Road. Barter said the total cost of all locally financed enhancements being explored comes out to just over $1.3 million.

Suslovic said each potential locally funded project will be evaluated in terms of educational and environmental impact, and the committee will also look at return on expenditures, such as if a certain expenditure will help reduce operational costs in the future.

Thompson said she and other board members were not inclined to support additional local funding of approximately $875,000 to expand the school’s gymnasium and cafeteria.

She said the district’s four other elementary schools are also in “dire need of money” for repairs or replacement. These projects, unlike Hall, would likely have to be locally financed.

“If we spend an additional $1 million (on Hall), that’s $1 million less we can put towards other district needs,” Thompson said.

Suslovic said while “you only get the chance to build a school once every 50 years,” the Hall committee is also being very “cost conscious” and understands it can’t overspend. He said his opinion is that locally funded projects should not exceed 5 percent of the total cost of the project.

He also agreed with Thompson that there are other schools around the district that will need work in the coming years, and will probably have to be locally funded.

“Every single dollar we spend on Hall is one less dollar to spend on other schools,” Suslovic said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

The Fred P. Hall Elementary School at 23 Orono Road, Portland.

The proposed site plan for the Fred P. Hall Elementary School.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.