Portland vote on Hall School construction likely to be delayed

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PORTLAND — Architects and city officials expressed skepticism at a March 4 meeting that a referendum to replace the aging Fred P. Hall Elementary School will make it to the November ballot.

Members of the Hall School Building Committee also discussed, but expressed reservations about, a suggestion from the state to close Hall and Longfellow Elementary School in favor of one new, larger school.

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

Oak Point Associates, the architects for the project to replace the school on 23 Orono Road, gave the committee a report on current demographics and projected enrollment from Davis Demographics and Planning, which anticipated a city-wide decrease in student population by 2 percent over the next seven years. There were about 7,000 students in 2014; just over 6,800 are projected by 2022.

Rob Tillotson, founder and president of Oak Point, said it is unlikely any question about Hall will make it to the November ballot based on how much work still needs to be done. He said all plans would have to be finished and sent to the state by June, and they haven’t started designing a building.

The referendum would likely be scheduled for spring 2016 if it doesn’t make it to the November ballot.

“I feel like the wind has been knocked out of my sails with this information,” said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the building committee.

Additionally, five of the eight mainland elementary schools show a projected decrease in resident students between now and 2022, according to Oak Point. Hall’s population is expected to decrease by a little over 16 percent. Only Ocean Avenue Elementary School and Reiche have projected student increases; Presumpscot Elementary was projected to remain stable.

Board members expressed concerns over the projections, questioning whether they adequately addressed the city’s growing immigrant population, as projections were in part based on birth rates in the city. Oak Point officials agreed to examine those numbers.

“We need to be absolutely certain that trend and influx is properly accounted for,” Suslovic said.

Because of the projected decline in Hall’s student population, Oak Point officials said a decision would have to be made by the School Department, the city and the state Department of Education about the project going forward. They could decide to build a smaller school than originally planned, move school boundaries to address student management, or consider a more comprehensive regional plan, like one large school to replace Hall and Longfellow.

Because Longfellow is further down the list to receive state funding, it is widely assumed it won’t receive any, meaning repairing or replacing it and the other city elementary schools would be funded by taxpayers.

But, according to committee member Jim Banks and Oak Point officials, the state would likely be more open to a comprehensive plan combining two projects, like Longfellow and Hall, which would receive more state funding than replacing an individual school.

Tillotson said the DOE suggested the city look at combining the two schools, but the initial reaction was to continue with Hall first and address Longfellow later. He said a combined school would likely have 700-800 students.

While the committee didn’t make any decisions about the future of either school, it did ask the School Board to look at the state’s comprehensive plan and get back to the committee in a timely fashion. During that time, Suslovic said the committee will continue on its mission and aim for the November ballot.

“I’m less confident about November since it’s not all in our control,” he said. “We’re responding to a state-controlled process. The state has final say if the project is justifiable and meets state guidelines.”

Suslovic indicated the committee might not meet again until directed to do so by the School Board.

Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk said while the projected demographics were not where the district thought they might be, it is not “a foregone conclusion” that a 700-student elementary school is going to be built.

Caulk sent a letter to families at both schools on March 5, trying to reassure them than no conclusions had been made about Longfellow.

Oak Point will present to the School Board’s next workshop on March 17.

Hall School, located near Sagamore Village, was built in 1956 and has had its share of structural problems. In 2012 it had an electrical fire requiring classes to be moved for two weeks.

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

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

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The Fred P. Hall School in Portland was approved for state replacement funding last April. While it was hoped a building referendum would be on the city ballot this November, architects and city officials are skeptical that will happen.

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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.