2017-11-17 / Front Page

Middle school merger in works?

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


As South Portland School Superintendent Ken Kunin, left, looks on, while city resident Tim George, who will have a child in grade five in 2022 when the proposed facility is scheduled to open, asks a question about the new $44 million middle school officials hope to build to house all students in grades five through eight. About 85 people attended the first informational meeting about the project, held Nov. 9 in the high school lecture hall. (Duke Harrington photo) As South Portland School Superintendent Ken Kunin, left, looks on, while city resident Tim George, who will have a child in grade five in 2022 when the proposed facility is scheduled to open, asks a question about the new $44 million middle school officials hope to build to house all students in grades five through eight. About 85 people attended the first informational meeting about the project, held Nov. 9 in the high school lecture hall. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – What has been the talk of the town for the past several years – hopes of building a single combined middle school in South Portland – got its first official unveiling this past week, but with a twist – officials want it to house grades five through eight, clearing space in the city’s five elementary schools to launch an expanding public preschool program.

In addition to a strong desire to expand preschool beyond the limited number of slots now available, which are awarded using a lottery system, space is said to be at a premium at the elementary schools, despite overall declining enrollments.

“We think this is a recommendation that benefits all of our students at the K-8 level,” said Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani. “We currently have 96 classroom spaces at our elementary schools, but we use 123 spaces. How can that be? We use closets, we use hallways, we use alcoves to deliver service.

“The needs of our students at the elementary level have significantly changed since those schools were built,” Germani said, citing the growing ranks of special education students in South Portland, as well as those for whom English is a second language.

Germani said grades five and six would be housed on one side of a combined middle school, with grades seven and eight on the other, with shared spaces to include the cafeteria and gym.

A few parents questioned adding grade five to a combined middle school, but Germani said the proposed building division would help to not only segregate older students from the younger ones to a large degree, it also would help to “make a large school feel small.”

“If we don’t move fifth-graders to address some of our issues, we will have to have a capital expenditure for our elementary school building in order to get the space we need to have,” Germani said.

About 85 people attended a public presentation of recommendations from a 22-person middle school facilities committee, convened in spring 2015 in anticipation of state funding for the project. About a dozen people spoke or asked questions, with all expressing some level of support for a combined middle school. A few asked how a large combined school might impact educational opportunities, but many expressed satisfaction that combining middle schools would result in athletic teams better able to compete against other area schools.

The South Portland Board of Education first began to look at secondary school solutions in 2004, soon after completing renovations to the five elementary schools. Combining middle schools was on the table even then, with the possibility of repurposing Mahoney Middle School as a new city hall raised publicly by several officials.

However, following a three-year study, the school board elected to focus first on a $47.3 million expansion of the high school. Funded entirely by local taxpayers, that renovation project was completed in 2015. School officials still hoped to obtain state funding for a middle school makeover, having submitted applications to the Department of Education as early as 2006. When those requests were finally graded by the state in 2010, Mahoney Middle School, built as the city high school in 1922, ended up at No. 14 on the state’s “Major Capital Improvement Program Priority List.” Memorial Middle School, built in 1967, landed at No. 55. As the state slowly ticked other projects off its list, Mahoney got the green light for funding in 2016, by which time the middle school committee was well underway in navigating the 21-step funding process dictated by DOE.

In February of that year, the school board picked WBRC Architects-Engineers from among six bidders to design a new middle school. That firm’s recent school projects include the Ocean Avenue School in Portland, as well as Hampden Academy and Brewer Community School.

Now at Step 6, having looked at and discarded WBRC models to renovate or replace Mahoney, the next milestone will come sometime next year, when school officials conduct a public straw poll on where to put a combined grade five through eight middle school, which would be eligible for up to $44 million in state funding, while the total build out is expected to cost upward of $50 million

Germani and Superintendent Ken Kunin both said during last week’s presentation that no spot has risen to the top at this time. WBRC senior associate Michael Johanning presented a slide showing more than 20 sites with sufficient acreage of at least 10 acres close to clusters of residential homes.

“We haven’t quite settled on any site just yet,” Germani said, “So, if anyone knows of any large tracts of land they’d like us to look at, please let us know and we’ll add it to the one we’ve already checked.”

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 ranked higher on the state funding list. The building’s 15-acre lot at the corner of Ocean Street and Broadway is also considered too small for the major addition needed to consolidate Memorial students there.

Memorial is on 17 acres off Wescott Street and houses the school department’s administrative offices. Relocating those offices would not be part of the state funding for a new combined middle school, Kunin said.

School officials have said in the past that if Memorial is chosen as the site of a single middle school, it’s many deficiencies, given the comparatively poor construction methods of the era in which it was built, would mean razing it to the ground in favor off a new building. The state will not fund renovations or reconstruction of Memorial on its own, but was willing to fund a single middle school as part of a district wide K-8 solution.

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 plenum space for computer networking, Mahoney has no elevator and lacks hot water in bathrooms, Kunin said. Meanwhile, Memorial lacks a sprinkler system, is know to have mold and air quality problems, and, despite being nearly 50 years younger than Mahoney, costs twice as much to heat, Kunin said.

One option under serious consideration for a new middle school, he added, is the possibility of using geothermal heating. That would cut heating costs for the district by nearly $200,000, he said, while also providing air conditioning that would otherwise be unavailable except in limited locations of the new school.

The first public straw poll on site selection for the new school is expected in 2018, with a bond vote in 2020. If everything goes as planned, the new middle school would open to students in fall 2022.

Meanwhile, even though Memorial is expected to be demolished as part of a combined middle school project, no matter where the new building ends up going, Mahoney is not slated for the wrecking ball.

“I want to be clear, there is no scenario where we are recommending the removal of Mahoney,” Johanning said. “It’s a beautiful building, a very prominent building. It’s not going anywhere.” Kunin and Germani agree that, once the new middle school is built, Mahoney would be signed over to the city for its use. However, that does not necessarily mean it will become South Portland’s new city hall.

“I do not think that is a foregone conclusion, and don’t think anybody should think that it is,” incoming mayor Linda Cohen said, after the presentation. “There are a lot of things that need to be done there to even bring it up to code. I’m not sure that’s something the city wants to take on. When it comes time for the city to take on, the council at that time will have to look at what is the highest and best use for that building.”

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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