Portland School Board backs $20M plan for new Hall Elementary School

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PORTLAND — The School Board on Tuesday night accepted what could be at least a $20 million plan to replace the aging Fred P. Hall Elementary School.

Board member Laure Davis cast the only dissenting vote in the 8-1 decision. She unsuccessfully requested postponing the vote until August.

The meeting at Lyseth Elementary School at 175 Auburn St. drew a few dozen members of the public, and the few who spoke opposed an idea floated by the state to build one large school to combine Hall with the nearby Longfellow Elementary School.

Kendra Allen said she and her family moved to Portland from New York City after hearing about its schools and neighborhoods.

“There’s lots of people like me … around the country who look at Portland and say ‘Wow, what a great city,'” Allen said. “To see Hall rebuilt in a way that’s safe is critical.”

Scott Segal, a Portland native, said his family wouldn’t be in the area if there was a larger school.

“We want an area where kids won’t get lost in the shuffle,” Segal said.

A report from Oak Point Associates, the architects designing a new Hall school, concluded a larger and consolidated school would be disruptive to the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’ve waited long enough,” said School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson, a sentiment echoed by most of the board.

Thompson and most other board members agreed a consolidated school was not in the city’s best interest.

“Unless someone brings to me data that a larger school would be more beneficial to students, I’m not willing to support a consolidated school,” Board member Marnie Morrione said.

Hall was placed on the state’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List last April, making it eligible to receive state funding. Longfellow is one of four other city elementary schools farther down the list. The others are Reiche, Lyseth and Presumpscot.

The Maine Department of Education suggested combining the two schools because both have had structural and facilities problems. But because Longfellow is much farther down the list for state funding, city officials have expressed skepticism it would receive any funding for replacement.

By combining the two into a more comprehensive plan, it was believed the state would likely provide more state funding than for replacement of a single school.

Based on numbers from Davis Demographics, a replacement for Hall would have to have capacity for 525 students. To accommodate this, a building of more than 75,000 square feet would be required.

A combined school would likely have an enrollment of more than 800 students, according to the Oak Point report. To accommodate this, a building of nearly 114,000 square feet would be required.

If a larger school were to be built at the Longfellow site, the parking lot would have to be used for the building. That would require taking parts of the Deering High School sports fields for additional parking. 

Thompson said this would not be a “not a viable option.”

According to the Oak Point study, the Hall School district was also explored along with the Deering/Longfellow area. The study said because of “zoning restrictions and the sensitive nature of the available parcels,” most land within the Hall School district is not suitable for a larger school.

Davis moved to postpone the vote because of what she called a focus on a “binary decision” between replacing Hall and consolidating the two schools. She wanted more options to be explored, such a redistricting and a consolidated, but smaller, school.

“What I feel has been missing from this conversation is moving beyond either/or,” she said, suggesting establishment of an ad-hoc committee to explore other options with Oak Point.

The board defeated her motion 6-3. Davis and members Pious Ali and Anna Trevorrow voted in the minority.

“Frankly the timing of the Hall School process has already been stalled,” board member Jenna Vendil said, adding she was “concerned with the time already spent.”

Morrione also said the board had waited too long already.

“We need to be expeditious to getting back to our commitment,” she said.

Hall School, at 23 Orono Road near Sagamore Village, was built in 1956. Among other problems, in 2012 it had an electrical fire requiring classes to be moved for two weeks.

Replacing the school is expected to cost $20 million or more, according to Oak Point, with construction expected to begin in May 2017. September 2018 is the projected opening of the new school.

During a Hall School Committee meeting in early March, architects and city officials expressed skepticism that a question about replacing Hall would make it to the November ballot, which was the original goal. It is now expected to be on a 2016 ballot.

Since that meeting, the Hall School Committee has not met. However, the School Board received updated demographic information from Oak Point at a June 2 workshop. The committee will reconvene on July 1.

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

Sidebar Elements

The Portland School Board on Tuesday approved a replacement plan for the aging Fred P. Hall Elementary School at 23 Orono Road. The Board decided not to go for a consolidated plan for a larger school combining Hall and Longfellow 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.