South Portland straw poll backs plan for 1 middle school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — People packed the South Portland High School auditorium Wednesday for a straw poll that approved a site for a proposed consolidated middle school by a 3-1 margin.

The proposed Wescott Road site was approved 151-49. About 300 people, including School Department staff and others who could not vote, attended the session.

There is a 21-step process the city must complete before the plan is approved by the Maine Department of Education. The city is at step 7 of that process.

The site proposal now goes to the state Board of Dducation for approval, and a concept design will be developed for later approval.

A second straw poll on the concept for the school design will be held in November, with state approval on the concept expected in January 2019.

Between now and when the school is tentatively expected to open, in 2022, the conceptual plan must be approved by the Maine Department of Education, the city School Board, and a city referendum in June 2019. If approved, construction is slated to begin in 2020.

“We have much work ahead as we strive together to do the best for South Portland that we can in designing a new school that enhances and strengthens our community and provides generations of our students the tools they need to become the leaders of tomorrow,” Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said in an email Thursday morning.

School officials last month made the case for closing Mahoney Middle School and demolishing Memorial Middle School and replacing them with a $50 million building for grades 5-8 at Memorial’s 120 Wescott Road site.

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 last month.

The district researched other locations for the new school, including land near the high school on Highland Avenue and at the Wainwright Fields sports complex. But neither of those options are viable because land on Highland Avenue is not available and the Wainwright family wants the land they contributed dedicated to recreation.

The School Department searched for parcels that were at least 10 acres in size, which posed a challenge, officials said.

According to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Kathy Germani, the district has been analyzing facilities and researching a new middle school since 2004.

If the project comes to fruition, fifth-graders would be moved to the new school, which would create space in the elementary schools and allow the pre-kindergarten program to expand, Germani said at a meeting May 23. There are 56 slots for students in this year’s pre-K program, but many families remain on the waiting list, she said.

Germani said closets, alcoves and offices in the elementary schools have been turned into classroom space with the influx of English Language Learners and students with special needs, prompting the need for more room.

The new school would have two wings, one for fifth- and sixth-grade students, and one for the seventh- and eighth-graders, and include a shared gym, library and cafeteria. Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said the district is looking at geothermal and solar energy in an effort to operate a nearly net-zero building.

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

Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road would be the site of a new school for grades five through eight in South Portland.

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