Portland schools renovation plan: Too much for 1 referendum?

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PORTLAND — School officials are confident voters will support a bond for major renovations to five elementary schools, despite at least one resident’s assertion that there is a better way to present the project.

On Nov. 13, Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk announced voters could be asked next November to approve $46 million for the replacement of Hall Elementary School and the renovation of Presumpscot, Lyseth, Reiche and Longfellow elementary schools.

Oak Point Associates, the Biddeford engineering firm hired to plan the projects, will present proposals to the School Board in June. If approved by the board, the City Council will decide whether to put the bond out to referendum.

Steven Scharf, a frequent critic of city government spending, said Monday that he feels a broader conversation needs to be had before the city moves forward with planning for the renovations.

“I think there needs to be a full community conversation about it, not just a conversation with the School Department,” Scharf said.

He said the School Department should reach out to the business community and other local organizations, not just parents. He also said that if the City Council approves sending the bond to referendum, he suggests breaking the project into smaller parts.

“I’m going to be recommending to the School Board and the City Council that they break it up into three pieces with the idea that you ask the first question, ‘do you want to spend $x million to build a new Hall School,’ then the second question is ‘do you want to spend an additional $x million to do four or five projects,’ and the third is ‘do you want to spend an additional $x million,’” he said.

He said it doesn’t matter how projects are divided, but he thinks voters shouldn’t have to approve one lump sum for all of the projects.

Peter Eglinton, chief operations officer for the School Department, said Portland voters have a history of supporting projects such as this one and while the district recognizes that it would be a lot of money, it is a long-term investment that needs to be made.

“We recognize that the projected investment in elementary school improvements is significant,” he said. “That said, we continue to face longstanding maintenance needs, overcrowding and inequitable learning space across many of our elementary schools. … Fortunately, we live in a community that has a history of strong support for its schools, including approvals for annual budgets in the past few years and considerable investments in middle school and high school renovations.”

In response to Scharf’s assertion that the proposal requires more community involvement, Eglinton said there will be several neighborhood charettes where residents will have the opportunity to share ideas or voice concerns about the project.

“We will be engaging the community over the next seven months so that everyone is clear about our needs, ways to improve the student learning environment and the basis for recommended investments,” he said.

Amber Cronin can be reached at [email protected] or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.