Portland school renovations won't happen overnight

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PORTLAND — Trust and collaboration between the City Council and the School Board will help determine how renovations at four elementary schools will move forward, Mayor Ethan Strimling said last week.

At a School Board workshop held Dec. 5, Strimling said he would also like to see “as much community engagement as possible” in the decisions that still must be made about the best approach to renovating and upgrading the buildings.

But in a sign that decisions about the massive project aren’t likely to come easily, even an initial proposal about committee oversight generated enough opposition to require sending it back for more work. 

City voters in November approved borrowing nearly $64.3 million to bring Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche schools up to 21st-century learning standards.

At the workshop last week, the School Board debated the best way to structure oversight of the renovation project and also reviewed a potential timeline that doesn’t put shovels in the ground until the summer of 2019.

Part of the delay between now and when construction can actually begin is that the School Department doesn’t have “a ready-made design, where we can say, ‘Here, go build it,'” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said Dec. 5.

“There’s a significant amount of pre-architecture and engineering work that needs to be done before we can even put out an RFP” for an architect, he said. “We need new specifications and analysis about what needs to be done” at each school.

“We have to know exactly what we’re dealing with,” Botana added, before a general contractor can be hired to oversee the renovations. “There are significant steps that need to happen.”

The goal, according to the school chief, is for the School Board to give final approval to some type of building committee no later than its meeting of Jan. 2, 2018, and to make appointments to that committee on Jan. 15.

“There is urgency (in deciding) on a governance structure,” Botana said, because “there are a lot of weighty decisions that someone has to make.”

Reiterating the call for quick action, Stephen Stilphen, director of facilities planning for the School Department, said the building committee structure must “be nimble, transparent and able to move at a pace that keeps us on target and on cost.”

Botana initially recommended the School Board give its Operations Committee oversight of the overall renovation project. That committee would also be assisted by an advisory board consisting of one city councilor, a board member and four members of the public.

Several board members objected, however, along with several members of the public, including Emily Figdor of Protect our Neighborhood Schools, a community group that played a key role in advocating for the four-school bond.

“I’m very concerned that you’re not fully taking into consideration the full scope of of this bond,” Figdor said. “This is a big piece of work that deserves its own committee and a chance for robust community involvement. The public should be an equal partner” in any decision-making.

Strimling also supported the creation of a new building committee to oversee the elementary school renovations.

In addition, he argued that the City Council and the School Board must “work hand in hand,” especially since the council has overall fiduciary responsibility for the bond.

School Board members Laurie Davis and Roberto Rodriguez both felt the Operations Committee could handle oversight of the renovation project, but Rodriguez also agreed with others that public participation should be emphasized.

Davis said a new committee is not necessary, epecially if efficiency is a prime goal. What she doesn’t want, she said, is to “spend a lot of time in committee and going back and forth for approvals,” which could slow the renovations.

She particularly argued for overall speed, since the renovations are likely to be a four-to five-year process.

But board members Sarah Thompson and Marnie Morrione both argued for a separate building committee.

“I have very strong concerns about only a six member (advisory committee),” Thompson said. “We need a bigger committee; not unwieldy, but more representative.”

And Morrione said she’d like to see public participation, especially from anyone in the community who has the expertise “that I as a School Board member don’t have. I want public engagement to capture some of that knowledge we don’t have.”

Botana said he would work with Anna Trevorrow, the School Board chairwoman, to “come back with something that pulls all this together.”

He said he hopes to have a recommendation ready for the School Board in time for a first reading on Dec. 19.

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

Portland’s Reiche Elementary School is one of four included in a nearly $64.3 million locally funded renovation project.

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