Superintendent's Notebook: Plans underway to improve elementary school buildings

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I was shocked to see the condition of most of Portland’s public elementary school buildings when I arrived last March as the district’s superintendent-elect.

I recognize that strong teacher-student relationships are far more important than facilities. However, the building deficiencies could have overwhelmed students and staff. Fortunately, the staff’s positive attitude kept that from happening.

A year ago, the School Committee received a report from the New England School Development Council that provided a comprehensive analysis of the conditions, capacities and enrollment history and projections for the district’s facilities. The committee decided to use the report as the basis for creating a plan to improve our elementary buildings.

The Elementary School Capital Needs Task Force was formed last fall. The task force was made up of principals from throughout the system, parents (including some who work as architects and engineers) and other talented individuals. They were charged with determining what would be necessary to:

1 – Provide equity in terms of space throughout the district elementary schools.

2 – Create learning environments that meet 21st century educational needs.

3 – Develop strategies to fund the needed improvements.

4 – Submit new building applications to the state by next month’s deadline.

The task force met throughout the winter and spring to accomplish those tasks. Three of Portland’s elementary schools were used as models for the rest of the system: East End Community School, the newest building, Riverton, the most recently remodeled school, and Ocean Avenue Elementary School, now under construction.

Task force members looked at the space needs of each of the district’s elementary buildings as it compared to those newer schools. They focused on the features of East End, Riverton and Ocean Avenue that are critical in achieving equity and the programming space necessary to meet students’ needs. They visited all of the schools, analyzed floor plans and even looked at bus routes to get a sense of whether children were distributed properly. They also looked at the cost of the work to be done and options to fund it.

Ideally, our district would receive state funding for a new elementary school.

Applications for new, state-funded schools will be accepted in June. We will submit five applications, for Reiche, Hall, Longfellow, Lyseth and Presumpscot.

If we succeed in getting state funds, we will couple the new school with capital improvement projects in the other elementary schools. That will create the equity in facilities needed to provide the programming we want for all of our children.

If we do not receive state funding, we will approach city voters to accomplish elementary facility upgrades over a longer period of time. In order to accomplish this work, the School Committee will consider establishing a capital reserve fund. Regardless of the path, Portland needs to upgrade elementary schools throughout the district.

Both the task force report and the NESDEC report position Portland well to submit quality applications. We face tough competition, because many of Maine’s school buildings are deficient. Let’s hope that our thorough preparation results in a state-funded project.

Finally, I want to thank all who voted on the Portland Public Schools’ 2010-2011 budget. It passed with more than 70 percent of voters in the recent referendum indicating support. In a year when job loss was real and programming loss was necessary, it is gratifying to receive your support.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.