Portland residents weigh in on school facilities study

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PORTLAND — Residents offered criticism and praise Monday for the findings of a nearly year-long study of public school facilities.

Eight residents commented on the 143-page draft report, which will be refined by the not-for-profit, Massachusetts-based New England School Development Council, the School Department’s hired consultant, and brought to another public hearing on May 11 at 7 p.m. in the Portland High School library.

The report does not cite specific recommendations, but presents data and options for the School Committee to consider.

School Committee member Jaimey Caron, the task force chairman, noted that next year’s budget includes money earmarked to hire another consultant, who could help the district determine which options are the most feasible and practical. A memo accompanying the report lays out what the task force believes should be the district’s priorities, including addressing inequities in the district’s elementary schools. 

At Monday’s public hearing at Deering High School, some residents criticized enrollment projections in the report and an option that would expand day treatment programming at West School, which is built on a former landfill. Although mitigated, the school has had problems with methane gas infiltration and the building itself is in a general state of disrepair. 

Residents generally expressed support for closing the central kitchen at Reed School and possibly moving it – and the adult education program – to 196 Allen Ave., the home of the Portland Arts and Technology High School and School Department Central Office. However, that plan, which could save the district adult ed administration costs, would hinge on moving Casco Bay High School to Portland High School. 

Resident Barbie Weed said relocating the expeditionary school to Portland High School was tried once in the past, but the proposal fell through because PHS would not agree to share its library, computer lab, gym and cafeteria. School Committee member Liz Houlton, a task force member, said the previous attempt is being reconsidered because CBHS is still searching for its identity.

“Without those things being functional for the students being placed there, you compromise the academic program,” Weed said. “It would require compromises on Portland High School’s side and and Casco Bay’s side, and those compromises were not met the first time around.”

NESDEC team leader Don Kennedy said his firm found no practical reuse of the Nathan Clifford Elementary School, which is slated to close in 2010 when the new Ocean Avenue School opens. Kennedy said the district could pursue a deal with the city to sell the school and use the money to upgrade other facilities. 

Resident Martha Shields asked the task force and School Committee to consider separately the school building and grounds, which she considers a city park. 

“People in the neighborhood have a stake in that green space,” Shields said, noting the neighborhood is still reeling from the impending closure of the historic Falmouth Street school. “It is our only green space and it’s really important to our community as a whole.”

Resident Steven Scharf pointed out what he considered inconsistencies, both in the report and in how it measures up to previous facilities studies. Scharf took particular issue with enrollment and population projections that suggest school enrollment will remain flat.  

For some residents, meanwhile, the findings came down to dollars and cents, which are not addressed in the report. Resident Mark Usinger said he often sends his child to school with extra packs of No. 2 pencils, because the schools cannot afford to buy any for the kids. 

“I’m wondering where on Earth the money is going to come from,” Usinger said. “This has not been a community that has supported its schools.”

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