South Portland High School renovation plan faces final vote

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Sept. 8 will hold a final public hearing and vote on a $44.2 million bond to renovate and expand South Portland High School.

If approved, the borrowing proposal will appear on the November ballot, where voters, who rejected a $56 million renovation bond in 2007, will again have the final say.

Mayor Tom Coward said he expects the council will ultimately vote in favor of a renovation bond, but stopped short of predicting a victory for the $44.2 million proposal.

“My crystal ball does not tell me what number will be attached to that bond,” he said.

Some councilors have expressed a desire to reduce the bond amount to as low as $35 million, but Coward, who still has concerns about the debt the city would incur, said he expects the bond will not be lower than $39 million.

Barring any last-minute changes, it appears the full bond has enough support to pass.

If it does, it would be the largest locally funded project in recent memory. In 2001, voters approved a $28 million bond to renovate two elementary schools and build two new ones. 

Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said the city only borrowed $18 million for the elementary schools, the remaining $11.4 million of which will not be paid off until 2023. 

Some councilors believe that asking residents to borrow another $44 million in the middle of a recession is a losing proposition, but most believe the project is the right one at the right price.

L’Heureux has said the projected burden for owners of a $200,000 home would be a tax increase of $3,700 over 20 years. In 2015, the peak year, residents with a $200,000 home would pay about $234.

Councilors Rosemarie De Angelis and Jim Hughes are the only councilors who have said they will vote against the proposal.

“The bond is just so beyond what I think is necessary and what I hear from people,” De Angelis said. “My phone has been ringing off the hook, mostly from seniors, who say, ‘thank you for speaking for us.'”

Although the school would be equipped with more efficient mechanical systems, Hughes said he will vote against the bond, because he feels any utility savings will be lost because of the increased size of the building.

Councilors Linda Boudreau and Maxine Beecher, however, have enthusiastically endorsed the proposed renovation, which would increase the size of the school by nearly 50 percent, from 190,000 square feet to 285,000 square feet.

Both have argued that any effort to reduce the cost by cutting corners would only cost the city more money in the long run.

That argument has gained traction with Council Patti Smith, who previously pushed for the School Department to lower the overall cost, but now endorses their plan.

“To shave a couple million dollars really doesn’t do the project justice,” she said. “I’m really excited about the project. I’m fired up and I can’t wait to get the project moving.”

Smith said councilors have examined the plan with a fine-toothed comb and have been unable to pinpoint any excess.

“This is probably our proudest moment in terms of due diligence,” Smith said. “(Residents) know that were are not just rubber-stamping this one.”

Councilor Tom Blake has also expressed his support for the project.

The council commissioned a third-party review of the project. The consultants agreed that major savings could not be found without drastically reducing the size of the school.

Project architects Harriman Associates recently presented the council with a list of renovations that could be completed for $25 million, $30 million or $35 million.

According to those documents, $25 million would buy a new library, replace the classrooms in the annex, develop the site, pay for demolition and upgrade electrical work.

A $30 million project would buy that, plus additions and renovations to Beal Gym.  For an additional $5 million, a new cafeteria could be added to the plan and renovations completed to the 1956 classroom and 1997 music wing.

However, the firm contends that even with a $35 million renovation, the plan would not address the facility issues that have placed the school’s accreditation on warning status from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin said none of those options would address problems in the original, 1952 portion of the school, which contains asbestos and antiquated air and electrical systems, among other challenges.

“Even at $35 million, you are not address the needs of the accreditation report,” Godin said, also noting handicapped accessibility requirements would not be met.

While the crystal ball may be murky when it comes to the amount of the bond, Coward said he believes one thing is clear.

“I look forward to a vigorous debate on both sides,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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