Reservations persist in South Portland about consolidated middle school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Jan. 3 created a conditional zone to allow sections of a new middle school at 120 Wescott Road to be four stories tall. 

But the unanimous vote, some councilors emphasized, did not indicate unanimous support for the School Department’s proposal for what Councilor Kate Lewis called a “mega middle school.” 

Also on Jan. 3, the City Council adopted ordinance amendments to increase the monetary thresholds at which purchases must be put to bid and then approved by City Manager Scott Morelli and the council. 

Under the School Department’s proposal, a $50 million school for grades 5-8 would be built behind the existing Memorial Middle School. Memorial would remain open until construction is done, when the new school would replace Memorial and Mahoney middle schools.

To make the building as compact as possible, preserve green space, and maintain the Memorial building while the new school is being built, parts of the new building are proposed to be as tall as 60 feet, or four stories.

That required a conditional use zoning amendment, because the Thornton Heights neighborhood is in a Residential A zone, which allows a maximum height of 35 feet.

In response to concerns that in the future, 60-foot portions could be proposed at the edges of the property, abutting residential neighborhoods, an envelope was added to the conditional zone to only allow the increased height in the middle of the property. Outside of that area, no building or part of a building could exceed 35 feet.

“(The School Department) made it make sense for why (portions of the building) need to be that tall,” Councilor Misha Pride said. 

Councilor Susan Henderson echoed Lewis’ caution that there are still “critical issues that need to be addressed” before she decides whether she’s in favor of a consolidated middle school. 

Councilor April Caricchio said she’d like to see a study of how a consolidated middle school would impact pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic in the area. 

Whether consolidated or not, Lewis acknowledged the need for a new Memorial Middle School, citing a weeklong closure before the holidays due to repeated boiler failures. 

Purchasing rules

Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said the city hasn’t updated purchasing threshold levels since 2011.

Some changes are required for compliance with guidelines that govern federal grants.

L’Heureux said it makes sense to raise thresholds to align with cost-of-living adjustments. He said he’s also heard questions from councilors regarding whether they should be required to review and approve bids that have already been accepted through the operating and capital project budgets.

Under the amendments, the threshold for small purchases, which each department has the authority to make, will be raised from less than $2,500 to under $4,000.

Informal bidding, which requires three bids without newspaper advertisement or formal requirements, go through two levels of approval. A department head can now approve transactions from $1,000-$5,000 without additional approval. Under the change, the range will increase to $3,000-$8,000. 

Purchases of $8,000-$20,000 now must be approved by Morelli. He previously had to approve purchases from $5,000-$15,000.

Formal bids, which require advertising, go through three levels of approval. The level at which transactions need to be previously approved in a budget and by Morelli will be increased from a range of $15,000-$40,000 to $20,000-$100,000. 

If the item was not previously approved in a budget, or if it does not receive a minimum of three bids, the council must approve it.

Anything over $100,000 must be approved by the council, whether included in the budget or not.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

South Portland city councilors on Jan. 3 approved a zone change that will allow some sections of a proposed new middle school on Wescott Road to be four stories tall. But they still have questions about the overall proposal.

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