State adds South Portland middle school to construction funding list

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Mahoney Middle School has been added to the state’s preliminary list of buildings approved to receive construction subsidies from the Maine Department of Education.

The new status does not guarantee funding for a comprehensive renovation or new construction project, Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said Wednesday morning.

But it is the first time in South Portland history that the city has a school on the approved list for a state-funded building project, he said, and suggests the city is on its way to approval after it completes a 21-step vetting process required by the state.

The Middle School Building Committee will discuss the next steps to be taken in the process at an Aug. 18 meeting.

The decision on Monday by the Maine State Board of Education, which was announced Wednesday morning by Kunin, could save taxpayers millions of dollars that might otherwise have been spent on borrowing to renovate the school.

The DOE funds fewer than 10 multi-million-dollar capital projects each year across the state. Since 2012, the board has approved funding for 12 capital projects.

Because the city has two middle schools, which are the oldest schools in the city – Mahoney, built in 1922 at 240 Ocean St., and Memorial Middle School, built in 1966 at 120 Wescott Road – an early stage of the funding process will hinge on whether the School Department intends to consolidate the schools in one building.

Kunin said the decision will be made through a “new vs. renovation analysis” to be conducted by the city.

According to Kunin, the state will fund the project if the city decides to consolidate. If the community opts not to combine schools, the state would fund renovations or a new Mahoney school either on location or at a new site, but not fund Memorial.

Regardless, “we are excited to partner with the community and the state to develop a state-funded middle school project which will be an exciting state-of-the-art learning and an asset for our community for generations to come,” Kunin said.

Lengthy process

For nearly a decade the School Department has weighed the need to restructure and update both middle schools, the only schools in the city that have not had major renovations.

Discussion around the topic stalled over the years, as middle school funding was eclipsed in part by renovations at other schools, particularly South Portland High School.

Each of the city’s five elementary schools were renovated or rebuilt between 2000 and 2005. In 2010, voters approved a $41.5 million bond to extensively renovate the high school.

That $47.3 million renovation project was finished in January. Along the way, the funding status for one or both middle schools has remained largely unchanged.

Health and safety upgrades have been completed piecemeal at both middle schools in recent years, thanks to a $5.8 million bond approved by voters in 2009. However, more pressing issues, including Mahoney’s lack of accessibility for the handicapped, have yet to be addressed, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani said last summer.

It has long been believed that transitioning to one middle school would save the district money, if only to cut down on infrastructure costs.

Former Superintendent Suzanne Godin unsuccessfully proposed consolidation in 2010. Before resigning last year, she said the biggest issue the department faced is the cost associated with operating two middle schools. Combining the schools could save the district between $750,000 and $1 million annually, she said.

Since 2010, a committee that includes staff, residents and members of the School Board have also considered the benefits and disadvantages of transitioning to a combined middle school.

The district applied to the state DOE for both schools to receive funding for renovations in 2010. As of last year, Mahoney ranked 14th and Memorial ranked 55th on the list. 

Following a hiatus, the Middle School Building Committee began meeting again last year; in February, the district hired the Portland-based engineering firm WBRC Architects to help weigh the advantages of a combined school, and potential locations for a new building. The district will continue to retain the firm’s services as it moves ahead with the state’s vetting process, Kunin said.

When Kunin joined the department last August, he asserted from the beginning that one of his primary goals would be to resolve the middle school building issue.

The process from now until students walk through the doors of a new or renovated school will likely take between five and six years, he said Wednesday.

School Board Chairman Dick Matthews, who has served on the board for nearly a decade, said that while the news is exciting, the district still has a long way to go.

As the process progresses, he said, leaning on the community for input is going to be crucial.

Matthews said it will be up to the community to decide the important question: “Where do we put this new middle school if we combine them?”

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

Mahoney Middle School, at 240 Ocean St., South Portland, was added on Monday to the Maine Board of Education’s preliminary list of subsidized renovation projects.

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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.