Wide input sought for Portland school construction projects

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PORTLAND — The School Board has expanded from four to six the number of community members who will be invited to serve on its new building committee.

Those six people will be at-large appointments, so “all taxpayers will feel like they have a voice,” School Board member Laurie Davis said at the Dec. 19 meeting.

The building committee will also include three board members and two city councilors. It will be co-chaired by a School Board member and a councilor, chosen by board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow.

The committee’s purpose is to ensure there’s opportunity for broad public input and engagement in the elementary school construction process. It will be primarily responsible for making decisions on the $64.2 million school capital improvement bond approved by voters last November, including the order in which the buildings will be constructed.

The bond is will be used to renovate and upgrade Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools.

The board was expected to take a final vote on the composition of the building committee at its meeting Tuesday, after the Forecaster’s deadline.

In addition, this week the board also intended to take up Superintendent Xavier Botana’s recommendations for the creation of individual Building Level Advisory Committees, which would have input on “specific design elements” for each school.

The goal behind the advisory panels is to appoint a group of people “who are deeply connected to the school” community, according to Botana.

Those panels would advise the building committee on “school specific construction issues, such as traffic flow around the building, location of key features, color selection, art features, etc.,” Botana said in documents provided to the board before its Jan. 2 meeting.

He is recommending that the building panels consist of 16 members each, including one representative from the board and the City Council.

The other advisory panel members would be the school’s principal or assistant principal, three other staff members and seven members of the public “who reside in the school’s attendance area.” The other three members of the advisory panel would be at large.

“Because they will be the end users … the priority for membership (on each advisory panel) is to include staff and parents along with elected officials who are elected from that school’s attendance area,” Botana added.

Between the building committee and the individual advisory panels, Botana said the School Board hopes to create “a clear line of decision-making,” while also “preserving Portland’s unique commitment to collaborative building projects.”

The building committee would be a separate entity from the school board and would have ultimate authority over the spending on each school project, as well as hiring general contractors and other construction project personnel.

The board held a lengthy discussion at its Dec. 19 meeting regarding the composition of the building committee, with Davis and school board member Sarah Thompson, in particular, arguing there should be more members of the public and they should be from across the city.

Davis said the school construction projects are “a community effort,” therefore “the building process should welcome all residents.”

Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for the Protect Our Neighborhood Schools advocacy group, which led the campaign for the school construction bond, appreciated the push for extra members from the public, but also had concerns about the move to make them at large.

Figdor said “weaker projects” would result if the building committee had “no anchor to the (individual) school community. We need to ensure they have representation on the building committee because decisions need to be made based on what’s wanted and what’s needed by the school community.”

But Davis said, “This is a city project and how we staff the committee should recognize and support our desire for equity across all of our buildings. We need to trust each other that we all have the best interests of our schools” at heart.

Marnie Morrione, the District 5 representative to the school board, however agreed with Figdor and argued that by focusing on at-large membership on the building committee, “we’re watering down the ability of individual school communities to engage” in the process.

In the end, though, the initial vote held Dec. 19 was unanimous.

The work needed at Lyseth Elementary is expected to be the most costly under the $64.2 million bond, according to information provided by Oak Point Associates, the design firm hired by the school department to review the capital needs at all of the district’s schools.

Construction at Lyseth is expected to cost nearly $18 million and would include new classrooms, gymnasium and cafeteria, along with additional space for the school’s pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and gifted and talented programs.

At Longfellow, the work is estimated to cost close to $15.4 million and would include making the building fully ADA compliant, as well as a full asbestos abatement.

The needs at Presumpscot include new classrooms, a gym and cafeteria, along with a “more functional” student drop-off and bus loop. In addition, the school requires “adequate space” for music, art and library programs. The construction cost there is expected to be $13.6 million.

At Reiche, which is estimated to cost $17.2 million, construction would focus on enclosing classroom corridors while continuing to provide open space for collaborative learning and on creating “right size art, music and reading spaces.”

The school board hopes to make appointments to the new building committee no later than its first meeting in February. Once that happens, the committee’s first task would be to hire an architect to create building specific construction documents.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Lyseth Elementary School, on Auburn Street, is expected to be the most expensive of the capital improvement projects under a $64.2 million bond approved by Portland voters to substantially upgrade four of the city’s elementary schools.

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