2018-06-08 / Front Page

Middle school straw poll is next week

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Tuesday, June 12, may be Primary Day, the day most think of as the big day at the polls, but there is another vote on the horizon, one that could affect South Portland for generations to come.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, residents with gather at the South Portland High School auditorium for a public straw poll on site selection for a new middle school, combining not only students in grades six through eight housed at Mahoney Middle School and Memorial Middle School, but grade five students from all five elementary schools.

Last November, a 22-member task force called upon to decide the best way forward, meeting the school department’s objectives while also making the best use of up to $44 million in state construction funding, settled on the combined school approach, suggesting a shared gym, cafeteria and library, with younger students segregated into separate wings.

Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani has said moving grade five into the new building will free up space in the elementary schools, allowing expansion of pre-kindergarten offerings district-wide.

Last month, the task force announced it has settled on a site for the new school. The choice to demolish Memorial Middle School was not a great surprise, even though he task force said it milled more than 20 sites, as the idea of consolidation at Memorial’s Wescott Road site had been floated as far back as 2004.

That’s when the South Portland Board of Education first began to look at secondary school solutions, 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, Hampden Academy and Brewer Community School.

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 an has next to no allowances for handicapped accessibility. That’s 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 bring Memorial students there.

Memorial, meanwhile, 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, Superintendent Ken Kunin has said.

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.

The new combined middle school will cost an estimated $50 million to build. At a public forum held May 24 at Small Elementary School, Kunin called the Wescott Road property, “the only possible, viable site,” of the 20 reviewed for the combined middle school. Although the site selection was initially announced as a unanimous vote of the task force, Kunin acknowledged the vote was only unanimous when counting committee members present and voting.

“There was some dissent,” Kunin said. “If everyone had been present, it would not have been unanimous.”

One of the dissenters was City Councilor Kate Lewis. At a council meeting Tuesday, June 5 Lewis said she objected not only to the site of the school, but with the very concept of combining middle schools.

Lewis said there are hidden costs in consolidation not considered by the task force. The big one, she said, is transportation. After all, students who now walk to Mahoney, or to grade five at various elementary schools, will end up being bused to a new building where Memorial Middle School is now, starting in 2022 when it is expected to open.

“That’s a 40-minute trip,” Lewis said. “That’s like taking every student in Portland and transporting them to the outskirts of the city every single day. I urge everyone to attend this straw poll on June 13 and make your voices heard,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, Colchester Drive resident Albert DiMillo, a frequent critic of school board budgeting, also spoke against the plan.

One problem with the straw poll, he said, is that it is likely to draw a limited number of people, and mostly school spending sycophants at that.

“It is likely that a group as small as 100 residents (needing only 51 to approve) could set this project in motion and have the taxpayers fund significant money on a project that almost no one has the facts on,” he said. “In 2016, over 15,000 South Portland residents voted in the November elections, so letting 100 residents decide the fate of this $50 million project is irresponsible.”

He offered an alternative concept – leave grade five at the elementary schools, move grade eight to the high school and construct a new building for grades six and seven, which he claimed could be done for $28 million, and, at nearly half the size, cost much less to heat.

“In 2010, I opposed the high school renovation plan because it was too large as school enrollment projections (of 1,100 students by now) were overstated,” DiMillo said. “Eight years later, I have been proven correct as there are just under 900 high school students in a facility that is 307,000 square feet – or 341 square feet per student, which is almost twice the state standard of 180 square feet per student.”

Moving grade eight to the high school, DiMillo said, would mean 260 square feet for each student, a calculation still 44 percent greater than the state standard.

“It is clear that moving the eighth grade to the high school can be done without creating over crowing in that facility,” he said. “There needs to be a complete independent review of the facts about enrollments and school capacity at all the elementary schools and the high school, before any plan is made regarding the size and the number of students that should be in any proposed new middle school.”

While Lewis urged the public to attend the June 13 straw poll, DiMillo sought a similar commitment from her fellow city councilors.

“All of the city council members should be at the June 13 school meeting and require that school officials properly address the issues I have raised,” he said. “The plan is moving much too quickly without input from the vast majority of South Portland residents.”

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