$70 million Portland school upgrade plan now up to council, voters

Fred P. Hall Elementary School in Portland.
Fred P. Hall Elementary School in Portland. Buy Photo
Posted June 17, 2013, at 7:08 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The City Council and voters must ultimately approve after the School Board last week OK’d a $70 million renovation plan for five elementary schools.

The board’s plan highlights the School Department’s facilities needs, with many aging buildings in serious need of repair or replacement.

The renovation plan includes betting on $31 million in state aid for two schools and asking voters to approve a $39.9 million bond for three other projects.

“From the city’s perspective, it’s a tremendous economic tool that can enhance the quality of life and make Portland a more desirable place to live,” School Board Chairman Jaimey Caron said.

The plan will likely be brought to the council in early fall, and if approved there, would go to voters in November.

Fred P. Hall Elementary School was the most urgent project, even before it was struck by a fire last September. The board’s plan calls for a $20 million replacement school paid for with state money, through the Major Capital School Construction Program.

The other state aid project is an $11.3 million renovation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School.

Deputy State Education Commissioner James Rier said previously that money from the state’s program is a virtual certainty for Hall and is a possibility for Longfellow, although it’s unclear when the money would become available.

The state maintains a priority list of school construction projects and selects the top six schools for funding; the latest round was approved in 2011.

Schools are rated by the state using several factors, including the state of building grounds, programming, and enrollment. The higher the rating, the higher the priority.

Hall is ranked 12th, followed by Longfellow at 18th and Reiche Elementary School at 21st. Presumpscot and Lyseth elementary schools also made the 71-school list. All five are part of the board’s renovation plan.

Caron said that while the state aid is not guaranteed, he is confident it will come through based on comments from state officials and the history of the state’s school fund account.

“There’s always an element of risk, but based on the last three or four cycles the state has gone through for major school construction [funding], they’ve always averaged around 20 [schools],” he said.

The list is periodically updated at the discretion of the education commissioner; prior to to 2011, it was last updated it in 2004.

Considering the state funded 22 schools in the last round, Caron said there is a small possibility the state might even fund Reiche.

“That may be too far of a stretch,” he said. “It would be nice if it happened, but [the board] felt that’s where the local effort had to pick it up.”

And while Hall and Longfellow are generally well-poised to receive state aid, four high schools — typically the most expensive projects — stand ahead of them and could potentially limit their chances of state funding in the next round.

The board is also recommending that the City Council include $870,000 in the Capital Improvement Program budget for an expansion of Ocean Avenue Elementary School to accommodate projected overcrowding. It would also provide “swing space” during renovations at the other schools, for students who might be displaced because of the work, according to a June 11 letter to Mayor Michael Brennan from Caron about the renovation plans.

Many city schools were built during the “baby boom” era or earlier, according to School Department records, and modeled on the teaching styles of the time. The renovation plans for the schools have a focus on updating programming and teaching space, to bring schools up to modern standards and expand them where necessary.

The ages of the schools also raises questions about health and safety hazards, such as the fire at Hall.

The fire occurred in the early morning, before students arrived, and was caused by faulty electrical wiring. The school was built in 1956, with an addition in 1967, according to department records.

Facilities Director Doug Sherwood said in a June 7 email that the department conducts routine safety checks, assessments and inspections on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis. These include “elevators, fire support systems [fire alarms, sprinkler systems, hydrants and extinguishers], boilers/pressure vessels, underground oil tanks, back-flow prevention devices, and indoor bleachers,” he said.

The district does not conduct any regular air or water-quality assessments, according to Sherwood.

“We do not do regular air and water quality inspections, but we do comprehensive follow-ups to concerns as they arise which have included both,” he said in the email.

Inspection of wiring is not a regular part of assessments conducted by fire departments, said Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst at the office of the state fire marshal.

Only new construction or significant renovations “brings the entire building under the microscope, and in that sense they get inspections,” Taylor said.

The latest comprehensive assessment of Portland schools was in 2010 by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, an Arizona-based nonprofit that conducts school facility assessments and assists in school planning, according to its website.

The report noted a myriad of problems with city schools, from lack of storage space and leaking roofs, to heating and ventilation issues.

At Hall, CEFPI found structural conditions and electrical and mechanical systems were in the narrow range of fair to poor condition. The Longfellow assessment noted the school was out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in several areas.

Caron said the renovations should allow the district to evaluate many of the problems plaguing the aging schools.

“With the ability to partner with the state, we can address those problems at all five schools comprehensively,” he said. “When they talk about improving the safety, that’s a key part of why we’re pursuing this. It’s not just because of the kinds of things like [the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.], although that’s certainly a concern.”

The city also has the option to get state financing, which would allow Portland projects to move ahead on the priority if other schools deferred and the city is willing to pay interest on the state money.

Financing may be an option, but Caron said the tentative construction schedule will likely rule out that option. He said if the bond is approved, the School Department would start the locally funded renovations ahead of the Longfellow project, which would allow additional time for the state to make progress down the priority list.

“For me, the exciting thing is that this has been over a decade in the making,” Caron said, adding that he was first involved with the renovation plans when they were introduced in the late 1990s.

“It was a big task then and has always been a big task,” he said. “The stars are all aligning for this renovation plan that I think will have a tremendous impact in Portland for a long time to come.”

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