South Portland seeks public's input on middle-school dilemma

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SOUTH PORTLAND — School officials will seek public input next month about what to do with the city’s aging middle schools.

One option under discussion is to build a new combined middle school with a different grade configuration that could be entirely paid for by the state. 

The new middle school could be built at the current Memorial Middle School site, but the School Department is also looking at other available sites.

The department will hold a community meeting Nov. 9 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in  the South Portland High School lecture hall to discuss the progress and possible next steps. Residents will have the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions. 

Mahoney Middle School, at 240 Ocean St., was built in 1922. It has a little more than 300 students and is about 92,000 square feet. Memorial, at 120 Wescott Road, was built in 1967 and has nearly 400 students in approximately 94,000 square feet, according to the School Department budget. 

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said the meeting will update parents and residents about the work that has been done since a previous meeting last October.

The two middle schools are the oldest schools in the city and are also the schools that have had the least investment in improvements.

“Memorial is in worse shape than Mahoney. Mahoney is a gem, a really solid building … absolutely gorgeous. Memorial is single-wall construction, not built for Maine, no insulation and it has water infiltration issues,” Kunin said.

But despite Mahoney’s architectural appeal and more solid construction, it also has significant problems, he said: it is not fully ADA accessible and needs elevators, classrooms are undersized, it needs a modern heating and ventilation system, and there is inadequate insulation. Kunin said asbestos or lead paint abatement issues are also possible because of the age of the building.

He said if the city were just renovating Mahoney, the state would pay. But then Memorial would have to be renovated at local expense.

In 2009, voters approved a $5.8 million bond for a variety of upgrades. But any further action took a back seat to the $47.3 million renovations at South Portland High School, which took two years to complete.

In August 2016, the State Board of Education placed Mahoney on its list of approved building projects, which put South Portland in line to receive state funding.

Kunin said money from the state to renovate Mahoney could be used for a consolidated middle school.

School Board Chairman Richard Matthews said the approximately 15-member middle school building committee has been meeting for about two years.

“We would like to have more people involved, especially some parents whose kids would benefit from the middle schools in the future,” Matthews said.

He said if the city does go forward, a new middle school won’t likely open until about 2023. Construction could take 2 1/2 years. He would like parents with children who are in kindergarten or younger to get involved in the process because it will probably affect their children.

“We are really encouraging people to pay attention and come out,” Matthews said. “We really need people to start paying attention if they want to be a part of it.”

Matthews said Memorial Middle School “is in such bad shape, you would have to rip most of it down.”

He said if they decided to build a new consolidated school, there is enough land at the Memorial site. But he also said the department has been looking at property across the city. 

“It is no secret land is not in abundance,” Matthews said.

Kunin said that part of the state funding process involves the School Department doing an analysis. He said the department has  already looked at replacing, renovating, consolidating and grade configurations. 

Kunin said one option is to have the middle school contain grades 5-8 instead of the current 6-8, to free up space at the elementary schools for pre-kindergarten programs.

Kunin said South Portland provides preschool at Skillin and Kaler elementary schools.

“We always have more calls for preschool than spaces,” Kunin said.  “At the elementary schools, we are utilizing more instructional spaces than we have.”

Instructional groups are using hallways and portable classrooms at Small school, he said, and places that were meant to be offices are being used as small classrooms.

Kunin said there is a space crunch in the city’s five elementary schools. “We will have to invest a lot of local dollars in the elementary schools,” he said, but freeing up the extra space would save the district a substantial amount of money in the future. 

“The state has been supportive to date at working with us on our projects,” Kunin added, although options like a bigger auditorium or a larger gymnasium, or investing in geothermal energy, would have to be paid for with local funds. 

 Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

South Portland must decide what to do about renovating or replacing its two aging middle schools: Memorial, left, on Wescott Road, and Mahoney on Ocean Street.

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