Touring turns to talking for Portland school bond committee

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PORTLAND — With tours of four city elementary schools done, it’s time for the committee reviewing a proposed school bond to dive into the details.

“I’m feeling very positive about our work. We have wanted to work with the city council on our facilities planning for many years now,” School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrione said Sept. 1.

Morrione and Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. are co-chairs of the ad hoc committee formed by Mayor Ethan Strimling to examine the “Buildings for Our Future” report compiled by Oak Point Associates of Biddeford.

Also on the committee are Councilor Justin Costa and School Board members Anna Treverrow, Sarah Thompson and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler. The next meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12, at City Hall.

The Oak Point report was reviewed again at an Aug. 30 meeting, revised in the sense it presented some added focus on the existing problems at Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools. For committee members, the visual realities of touring the four schools last month was as critical.

“There is no doubt that we need to renovate these schools,” Councilor David Brenerman said Sept. 1. “The question before us is, how much can the city afford and what specific renovations are essential.”

Strimling found conditions at all four schools distressing for common and disparate reasons.

“You look at Longfellow, you see lunch tables stacked up in the hallway, you see tennis balls on the feet of chairs so the floors won’t be damaged,” he said Aug. 31. “Those portables at Presumpscot were meant to be temporary and they are still there. You say to yourself, we can do so much better.”

Doing better now carries an estimated $70.6 million price tag, with work stretched out through 2022. The plan first recommends a $16.14 million renovation and expansion to Presumpscot, at 69 Presumpscot St.

Almost 50 percent, or $7.5 million would pay for expansion, including a second floor. Work is expected to be completed by the beginning of the 2019-20 school year if a bond referendum is held by March 2017.

Longfellow Elementary, at 432 Stevens Ave., would follow, at a projected cost of $16.36 million. It is the oldest of the schools, opened in 1952.

“Longfellow School likely has the most mechanical issues to deal with, they have windows that don’t open and no flexible space,” Brenerman said. “A significant problem is, it does not meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards.”

The Longfellow Elementary work is expected to be finished by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

Reiche Elementary, the newest of the four, opened in 1972. Oak Point Associates said it lacks space in many ways, including for instruction of smaller student groups and staff offices. Its open design is outmoded, and school staff and committee members have cited noise, heating and lighting problems that need addressing.

The Reiche work is estimated to cost $17.9 million, with $5.3 million for mechanical and electrical system upgrades. It is estimated to be finished by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

Work at Lyseth Elementary, 157 Auburn St., is projected to cost $20.21 million, with $7.7 million spent on expansion that includes adding a second floor.

As at Presumpscot, the use of portable classrooms at Lyseth must stop, Brenerman and Strimling said.

“If we could do one thing, it would be to eliminate those and bring the students back into the school,” Brenerman said.

If Strimling and Brenerman are preaching to the choir, Morrione and Hatzenbuehler said they are pleased to hear it. But they are ready to move on to the tougher questions, especially financial ones.

“I think (Strimling and) Morrione have done a really good job laying out a thorough time-line and agenda,” Hatzenbuehler said Aug. 31. “I’ve been sitting with this as operations chair for a long time. Now we can talk about nuts and bolts. I am looking forward to be able to make decisions.”

Strimling said the Sept. 12 meeting will review questions brought up before the tours began about the scope of the work, school enrollments, what improvements have already been made and how the idea of equity in educational opportunities plays into the separate plans.

Later this month, the committee could begin to discuss finances, the mayor said. The Oak Point estimate is the starting point; it was used when the School Board sent its recommendation for a bond question to the City Council in June.

Now it will be measured against other city needs, debt levels and property tax rates, Brenerman said.

“We are all in agreement we need to renovate these schools, if we can figure out how to get the most for our dollars without a significant tax increase, we will have done something significant,” he said.

Strimling has estimated the borrowing schedule for the bonds would add $30 to the average city property tax bill annually for five years, in addition to any other budget-drivers that could lead to property tax increases.

“I think what we will hear is, people really are willing to make the investment,” he said.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell has not yet advised about the financial impact of a bond, but has noted a gap of $8 million or more already exists between the bonds needed to serve the city schools and the level of borrowing that would not increase taxes.

The committee will eventually send its findings back to the School Board before a bond question is forwarded to the City Council. Committee members hope to see a bond referendum on the ballot by March 2017.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, left, City Councilor Justin Costa and Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana tour Reiche Elementary School last month. The committee considering a $70.6 million school repair bond meets again Sept. 12.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.