South Portland lays groundwork for middle school decision

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Embarking on a process that could take up to six years, residents gathered Wednesday night at South Portland High School to begin talking about the future of the city’s two middle schools. 

A solution could be the combination of both schools into one, which the district has been discussing for about a year.

There are pros and cons to building a combined school at both locations, architect Michael Johanning told attendees Wednesday.  

The infrastructure at Mahoney would be easier to renovate and upgrade, but campus space is tight, and it would be more difficult to expand. However, even though there’s more physical room for growth at Memorial, because the building is not energy efficient, Johanning said, renovations might be less cost effective.

Combined, enrollment at Mahoney and Memorial is about 725 students. When factoring in the state standard of providing about 160 square feet per student, and the cost for new construction at about $200 per square foot, Superintendent of Schools Kunin said, a consolidated school would cost about $23 million to build.

Since 2004, with the knowledge that Mahoney or Memorial would need major repairs, the School Department has tried to find a workable funding solution, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani said.

The 1960s-era Memorial Middle School, which serves about 425 students at 120 Wescott Road, is 55th on the Maine Department of Education’s funding list. Mahoney, built in the early 1920s at the intersection of Broadway and Ocean Street and housing about 300 students, had been idling at 14th.

In August, Mahoney was finally added to the slate of schools to receive renovations or new construction funding. South Portland has never had a school renovation funded by the state, Kunin said shortly after the announcement. 

The news that Mahoney could be renovated with state funding, while exciting, also foretells a long road ahead, Johanning said. 

Options for how to use the funds include renovating or building a new Mahoney School or a new consolidated middle school, but not renovations of both Mahoney and Memorial. If the city decides to just renovate Mahoney but not consolidate, it’s likely, but not guaranteed, that renovations at Memorial will have to be locally funded. 

In the months ahead, the DOE will help district staff complete an analysis to decide whether to build a new school, renovate or consolidate. The analysis will weigh factors such as safety and security, the historic value of each building, property size and room for growth, as well as traffic flow and accessibility, Johanning said. 

Residents on Wednesday used small groups to discuss questions, concerns and opinions. 

Large sheets of paper on tables and walls in the high school cafeteria invited people to comment and answer DOE questions such as, “How does a school facility incorporate personalized work environments for students to work, either individually or in small groups?”

Members of the public were also invited to write down their own questions, many of which centered on the pros and cons of consolidation. 

“What if Mahoney is renovated and then Memorial does not get local funding for renovation?” was one question. “Is this something that could happen? Could we end up with one school renovated and one not?”

Others asked about feasible locations for a consolidated school: “If we consolidate schools, are we locked into these two locations, or is there a third location more favorable?” 

Courtney Hart, who has a daughter in third grade who would attend Mahoney, wondered how consolidation might affect her child’s learning environment and ability to participate in extracurricular activities. 

“If schools are consolidated, how can we make sure the kids will have sufficient access to extracurricular opportunities,” Hart asked. 

Hart said that while she’s willing to be persuaded, her initial opinion, which she said is shared by many parents she knows, is against consolidation. 

She said she likes that Mahoney will be within walking distance for her daughter, but she worries if both schools are consolidated that a shift from the small, “nurturing environment” at Brown Elementary School to a school that would likely top 700 students would be too dramatic. 

“I really like the idea of a community, neighborhood school,” Hart said. 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland residents shared opinions and asked questions at the first community meeting Wednesday night about the future of Mahoney and Memorial middle schools.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.