South Portland weighs move to 1 middle school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Department is again considering combining Memorial and Mahoney middle schools. 

Still in the preliminary stages of evaluation, the Middle School Building Committee reconvened this summer after a five-year hiatus.

It is tasked with analyzing physical consolidation of the schools, where a combined school (new or otherwise) could be located, and with weighing the type of space necessary to meet essential academic standards. 

Talk of combining the middle schools, not only to improve physical conditions for students, but to save money, has taken place for much of the last decade. 

Memorial Middle School, at 120 Wescott Road, was built in 1966 and has about 420 students; Mahoney, built in 1922 at 240 Ocean St., serves a little more than 300 students. The two schools are the oldest in the city and the only ones not to have had some sort of major reconstruction or renovation. 

After each of the city’s five elementary schools were renovated or entirely reconstructed between 2000 and 2005, after voters approved a $5.8 million bond for improvements to South Portland High School and both middle schools, and after voters in 2010 approved a $41.5 million bond to renovate South Portland High School, the question of when and how to pursue funding for a more comprehensive middle school renovation fell to the committee.

Shortly after the panel was formed in 2010, the city applied for state funding to repair the schools. 

Mahoney is now ranked 14th for state funds, and the state has funded the top dozen, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Kathy Germani said Monday.

Memorial is farther down the state list, which probably means the likelihood of both schools receiving state funds for capital improvements is unlikely. Reconstruction would likely involve a patchwork of funding.

Neither school stands out as having enough room for consolidation and expansion. Mahoney would likely be the first choice for a combined school, Germani said, although the possibility of  new construction isn’t very realistic because space in and around the building is limited.

If the only choice is to build a new school somewhere else, the question is where. 

“There’s really not a lot (of land) around the city,” Germani said. “There’s (also) quite a bit of loyalty to either side of the city,” which would make the choice especially difficult. 

Thinking along those lines, however, is a bit premature at this point, Germani noted. 

What is indisputable, however, is that combining the two schools into one would save money. 

In late April, during this year’s budget process, former Superintendent Suzanne Godin told members of the City Council that the School Department would save $750,000-$1 million annually if the middle schools were consolidated. 

Godin told City Councilors, “We’re in this position, similar to where we were as we were moving toward preparing for our high school renovation, (with) not wanting to do anything that would get paid for and then be undone within the next three to five years.”

Critical health and safety upgrades have been fulfilled at both schools in recent years, but other major issues, including Mahoney’s lack of handicapped accessibility throughout the building, must be addressed soon, Germani said. 

Another aspect the committee is also taking into consideration is the sentimentality residents maintain for both buildings – especially Mahoney, which is one of the oldest buildings in the city. 

“It’s going to be a tough choice for a lot of people. South Portland is a very traditional town,” School Board Chairman Dick Matthews said. “(Residents) like to keep things that have history.”

Mahoney “is a solid building, but (it has) a lot of problems,” he added.

While the district expects to hear from the state sometime this school year on whether Mahoney will qualify for capital improvement funds, there’s no guarantee. The alternative – culling funds from taxpayers – might be too much to ask, Matthews said. 

“Coming on the heels of the high school bond, (and) the new public works facility, are voters ready for another big debt?” he asked. “Obvously it would be to our advantage to try and figure it out as soon as possible.”

The building committee is slated to meet at least once a month through next June. The next meeting, on Thursday, Sept. 17, will be at Memorial Middle School. 

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

Memorial Middle School, at 120 Wescott Road in South Portland. 

Mahoney Middle School, at the corner of Broadway and Ocean Street in South Portland. 

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.