Some in South Portland want more discussion about middle schools

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A group of residents has scheduled their own discussion about a proposed new middle school, contending there is confusion about the plan after the School Department’s official information sessions.

One of the organizers of the meeting, slated for 3-5 p.m. Sunday, June 3, at 408 Broadway, is Laura Pearlman, a member of the Middle School Facilities Task Force.

Her husband, Ed Pearlman, on Tuesday said they have no political agenda, but see a need to give residents another opportunity to express their views.

Pearlman, whose youngest child is scheduled to graduate June 10 from South Portland High School, said he and his wife are not necessarily opposed to the proposed plan.

“There’s no line here, we’re all on one side,” he said, although they have asked outside specialists to answer questions about the proposal put forward by the district. 

But Pearlman also said the Middle School Facilities Task Force has controlled the message, and residents he has heard from want more open discussion with each other. He said dialogue about the project, which will have a great impact on the city’s families, culture, economics, and property values, is important. 

Laura Pearlman has been a member of the task force for two years, but is acting as an individual at the meeting, not as a member of the committee, Pearlman said. 

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin this week said he encourages people to advocate for what they feel is right, and said Laura Pearlman’s involvement in no way takes away from her work on the task force. He said the department recognizes that people “feel passionately about their schools, which is part of what makes South Portland such a wonderful community and bodes well for our future.”

“Now that Mahoney and Memorial need to be renovated or replaced, after several years of careful study and analysis, the Middle School Building Committee has recommended that we return to one middle school that meets the needs of South Portland’s students today and far into the future,” Kunin said. 

As communicated to the community from the initial approval in August 2016, Kunin said, the state will pay for all costs of a project that meets state guidelines.  

He said cost estimates of all options – locally and state-funded – will be further developed during the concept design phase and be clearly explained well before a referendum. 

Two meetings were held by the School Department last week to update the community on the proposed plan for a new, $50 million middle school to be built on Wescott Road. 

A public straw poll on the site selection will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, in the South Portland High School auditorium.

Under the proposal, Memorial Middle School at 120 Wescott Road would be demolished, while Mahoney, at 240 Ocean St., will likely be preserved and returned to the city. It has not been up to code in many areas, according to School Department architect Michael Johanning, including a lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and poor ventilation. 

The school would house students in grades 5-8, with a shared library, cafeteria and gymnasium, but have two separate wings. 

There is a 21-step process the city must complete before the plan is approved by the Maine Department of Education. If that happens, a referendum on the project could be slated for November 2019, and the building could open in 2022.

If the state gives the go-ahead after the site straw poll, “we will move into developing the concept for a new school,” Kunin said.

The independent community meeting on Sunday will include an architect and heating specialist to answer questions, Pearlman said. 

The meeting is intended to clear up confusion around a mistaken impression that if the straw poll does not approve the project the city will lose state funding, he said, and that renovations must stack up to new construction.

Under the ADA, older buildings only need to meet 1991 standards, Pearlman said, adding that the task force’s architect admitted after one of the public meetings that some of the renovation plans were based on state preferences, not on state requirements. Also, he said, no answer was given to a question about what consolidation would cost for busing, road construction and other potential costs the state would not cover. 

Other options included a new Mahoney Middle School at a new site at state expense for $23 million, or renovating Mahoney for an estimated $26 million at state expense and building a new Memorial Middle School for $30 million at local expense.

The Middle School Facilities Task Force recommended in a community meeting last November that the city build a single school to replace the two aging middle schools. The panel’s preference for Wescott Road was announced May 17.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext, 106., or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.

Mahoney Middle School in South Portland will be closed under a proposal from the South Portland School Department.

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