2016-10-07 / Front Page

City looks to state for middle school makeovers

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s been talked about among school officials and city staffers for years, but on Wednesday, Oct. 5, the public was scheduled to get its first chance to weigh in on potential consolidation of South Portland’s two middle schools into one new building.

That was one of the options to be discussed at a public forum scheduled for Wednesday night, after the Sentry deadline, at South Portland High School. That session was prompted by the recent announcement of a new priority list for school construction projects maintained by the Maine Department of Education.

At its Sept. 14 meeting, the Maine Board of Education voted to open a new application cycle for state funding of school construction projects.

“In consultation with the State Board of Education, the department has determined that for the first time in six years, the time is right to open a new application cycle,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley. “The application, review and approval process will remain consistent with the past process.”

As part of that process, building applications will be posted on the Department of Education website by Oct. 15, Beardsley said. The state board will review all submitted applications and craft a needs-based priority list. Then, over the next two years, the initial list will be winnowed to a final priority list, and finally, an approved projects list.

Currently, Mahoney Middle School, built as the city high school in 1922, is No. 14 on department’s “Major Capital Improvement Program Priority List.” Memorial Middle School, built in 1967, is ranked at No. 55. That priority list was last amended in 2010. However, in August, the state board voted to elevate Mahoney to the approved projects list.

When Superintendent Ken Kunin announced that development, he said it opened the door to “potentially receive significant state funding” for rehabilitation of Mahoney.

“We’ve been hoping and waiting for this,” Kunin said. “Both schools need extensive renovation to meet the needs of our students now and into the future.”

At the time, there had been concern a new call for construction applications might push Mahoney down the priority list.

Since August, the school department’s 17-member Middle School Facilities Task Force – created in December 2014 in anticipation of one or both middle schools making the approved projects list – has inked in a 21-step process mandated by the Department of Education to determine how best to proceed.

When the task force was formed, then-Superintendent Suzanne Godin predicted the school department might go to the public with a $40 million bond request sometime within the next eight to 10 years.

Godin said at the time that, 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 local 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 current city bonds are retired, 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.

Kunin said the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting was to unveil the 21-step process and explain what the city must do to receive a state construction subsidy, as well as to take pubic input on the best course of action, as the task force moves ahead with creating a renovation and/or full construction plan.

In February, the school board picked WBRC Architects to design a new middle school. Its recent school projects include the Ocean Avenue School in Portland, as well as Hampden Academy and Brewer Community School.

For more than a decade, city and school officials have proposed consolidating South Portland’s two middle schools into one new building that would go on the footprint of Memorial Middle School. That would open the way for Mahoney Middle School to become the new city hall.

Officials have long claimed the current city hall building is expensive to heat and maintain while also being too small, even with a 1979 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 under one roof 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.

The oft-cited plan involves the school department replacing Memorial Middle School on Wescott Street in a size large enough to house all 725 students in grades six through eight, then gifting Mahoney to the city.

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

Although Mahoney is said to be in better physical shape than Memorial’s mid-century construction, 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 building’s 15-acre lot at the corner of Ocean Street and Broadway is considered too small for the major addition needed to consolidate Memorial students there, school officials have said in the past.

Memorial is on 17 acres off Wescott Street and houses the school department’s administrative offices. School officials have said if it is chosen as the site of a single middle school, its many deficiencies, given the comparatively poor construction methods of the era in which it was built, mean razing it to the ground in favor off a new building might be the most economical option. Memorial also is adjacent to a number of playing fields, a limitation of the downtown Mahoney site.

Both buildings have issues with heating, ventilation, plumbing and electrical systems, as well asbestos that would need to be removed during any renovation project.

In addition to having no space for computer networking, Mahoney has no elevator and lacks hot water in bathrooms, Kunin said. Meanwhile, Memorial lacks a sprinkler system, is known to have mold and air quality problems, and, despite being nearly 50 years younger than Mahoney, costs twice as much to heat, Kunin said. Memorial also has structural issues, including a buckling interior wall and a gym roof that’s not rated to hold its maximum snow load.

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