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PORTLAND — The School Board was expected to vote on recommending a major bond proposal for school repairs to the City Council on Tuesday night.
The $70 million being proposed would fund renovations at four of the city’s elementary schools: Reiche, Lyseth, Lincoln and Presumpscot, which were outlined in the 2013 study “Buildings for Our Future.”
The Fred P. Hall Elementary School was also included in the study, and replacing the school at a cost of $30 million was approved by city voters in April. Hall had several problems, including damage from a fire in 2012. Hall was placed on the Department of Education’s Major Capital Construction Approved Projects List; about $1.4 million will be borrowed, and the rest will come from the state.
However, board member Sarah Thompson has proposed an option going forward which would bring the total down to just over $40.3 million. Her proposal would call for the same level of renovations at Longfellow and Reiche as proposed by BFOF, but scale back projects at Lyseth and Presumpscot.
Thompson said while she believes $70 million is still what the schools need, affordability and fiscally responsibility need to be considered along with necessary updates.
Thompson said a BFOF update in 2016 showed projected enrollments that were lower than previously expected for Lyseth and Presumpscot, which meant it would be possible to reduce planned renovations if the downward trend continues. She said the “light touch” option would still mean a significant amount of work would be done at the two schools, but wanted people to know the status at the schools would be revisited.
The proposed $70 million bond has been largely supported by board members throughout the process, with issues such as deferred maintenance and safety conditions often cited. At a May 24 workshop, board member John Eder said there eventually comes a point where a learning environment “can no longer be overcome with innovation” and becomes an impediment. He said it would be “shortchanging” the schools to have anything less than the full $70 million.
“The time to act is now,” Eder said in May.
On Monday, School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrione said since the board will likely not meet in July, it is hoped a recommendation for the council would result from Tuesday’s meeting.
“There is still a majority of the board that wants to move forward” and not table or rework the question, Morrione said.
However, the issue may not move as smoothly through the city council as it did for the school board.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chaired the Hall School Building Committee that oversaw the design and construction of the new school, on Monday said while he and other councilors support good school facilities, they must be maintained in a responsible way.
Suslovic said past councils and school boards have embraced maximizing the potential for state aid, which he said made a lot of sense. He said while taxpayers paid for renovations to Riverton Elementary School, the state came through with funding for Hall, Ocean Avenue Elementary School and the East End Community School.
If the referendum passes, the city could not seek state funding for these projects.
“So that to me is the kind of strategy and kind of outcome we all should be working towards,” Suslovic said.
However, Thompson said Presumpscot, Reiche, Lyseth and Longfellow have been on the list for state funding for some time, and if “we keep waiting for state funding,” it’s unlikely those schools would ever get renovated.
“I’m not willing to gamble and continue to sit idle,” she said.
Suslovic said he hopes the finance committees of both council and school board can come together and “work on it and come back with what would be a joint recommendation on how to proceed.”
“No one is saying we don’t need to improve our elementary schools,” Suslovic said. “We have to nail all this stuff down before we turn to the voters.”
Suslovic also asked whether it made good financial sense to authorize a borrowing package of this size when, realistically, the district could only do one project at a time, since closing a school would require relocating temporarily.
Suslovic also said there needs to be a master plan for all the district’s schools, a number of which need repairs as well that include fire alarm systems, roofs and windows.
“You need to have a master plan before you turn to the voters and say, “Give us money,'” Suslovic said.
While BFOF looks at the four elementary schools, Suslovic said it is not a master plan for the district.
Should the City Council ultimately back the full $70 million proposal, the bond would go before residents as a referendum, likely in November.
The $70 million figure was recommended to the school board from its finance and operations committees in April. The board has held two public hearings, and was scheduled to hold on Tuesday. Thompson said Monday she wasn’t sure what would happen with her proposal, but felt the smaller proposal was reasonable.
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