2014-12-05 / Community

South Portland looks to

By Duke Harrington
Contributing writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — With the newly constructed wing of South Portland High School set to open in January, the school board has begun to turn its eyes to a middle school makeover, anticipating that it could go to voters with a $40 million bond request sometime within the next eight to 10 years.

The long-term plan is to consolidate the city’s two middle schools into one new building, replacing Memorial Middle School, which would open the way for Mahoney Middle School to become the new city hall.

At least, that’s the plan that’s been bandied about for the past several years. When broaching the topic at its most recent workshop, however, the school board decided only to create a new Middle School Facilities Committee to conduct a needs assessment and develop a renovation and/ or construction plan to the full board.

The 17-member committee is expected to include principals and one teacher from each of the middle schools, assistant superintendent Kathy Germani, Director of Finance Rafe Forland, Russ Brigham, the school department’s director of buildings and grounds, and one school board member, as well as one city councilor, up to seven middle school parents and one citizen-at-large.

The school board was expected to begin soliciting volunteers following a final determination of the committee make-up at its Dec. 8 meeting.

In recent years the city has looked repeatedly to replace city hall, claiming the old building is expensive to heat and maintain while also being too small, even with the 1979 wing addition. Over the years, the city council has eyeballed the former armory building, a Waterman Drive office that’s now home to the South Portland Housing Authority, and an adjacent site at 148 Ocean St. as potential city hall buildings, but has repeatedly come back to Mahoney. Taking over the old school for municipal functions would allow repatriation of the planning department from the old Hamlin School at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets, as well as the assessing department, located in a building adjacent to the city hall parking lot, under one roof.

The oft-cited plan involves the school department replacing Memorial Middle School on Wescott Street in a building large enough to house all 730 students in grades six through eight, then gifting Mahoney to the city.

In 2010, the city pegged renovations needed to convert Mahoney to use as a city hall at $4.4 million.

However, much will depend on state funding. Mahoney Middle School is 14th on the Maine Department of Education’s Major Capital Improvement Program Priority List. Memorial Middle School is ranked 55th.

According to Superintendent Suzanne Godin, if approved for funding, the state subsidy for any middle school project would only come to about 13 percent of the actual costs. The rest would come from taxpayers.

“When we were looking at this 10 years ago, it was a $26 million project,” she said. “I imagine that would be upwards of $35 to $40 million now. But keep in mind, we’re not talking about this happening for another eight to 10 years.”

That will be about when some recent bonds are retired, Godin said, including the $41.5 million borrowed to remake the high school and the $14 million bonded to build the new public services complex on Highland Avenue.

Mahoney, created as a high school in 1924, with a major renovation in 1937, is said to be in better physical shape than Memorial’s mid-century construction. However, it was built in an age that makes it tough to wire for modern technological needs, which is why Mahoney ranks higher on the state funding list.

The purpose of the new committee will be to create an outline for talking points for the public, as the project moves forward, including the cost of continuing to maintain two separate middle schools.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to do something,” said School Board member Rick Carter. “The open question is whether the community will support one middle school, or of it only wants one. The problem is, if we just throw it out there, we’re going to get a gut response, with no information behind it.”

Return to top