Portland schools’ proposed $3.6 million purchase, upgrade of downtown building gets initial approval

This 353 Cumberland Ave. building in Portland is owned by Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. Portland Public Schools officials hope to allocate $3.6 million to buy and renovate it.
This 353 Cumberland Ave. building in Portland is owned by Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. Portland Public Schools officials hope to allocate $3.6 million to buy and renovate it. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 12, 2013, at 2:56 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — City schools are a step closer to having a centrally located central office.

On Thursday, Nov. 7, the city Finance Committee unanimously recommended a $3.6 million plan to purchase and renovate the former Goodwill Industries building at 353 Cumberland Ave. in the city’s downtown district.

The committee’s action sets the stage for approval by the City Council by the end of the year, a move that Finance Director Ellen Sanborn said is likely.

“The council generally supports the School Board’s decision to do this,” she said. “I don’t see any reason why the council wouldn’t approve it, and I haven’t heard anything to make me think there is a lot of controversy around it.”

The Finance Committee’s recommendation passed with just two votes. Councilor David Marshall was absent, and Councilor John Anton recused himself from discussion due to a professional conflict, Sanborn said.

The project would be paid from two sources. First, about $445,000 would be appropriated from a fund set up after the sale of Martin’s Point in the early 2000s. The remainder would be paid from bonds, she said.

The City Council is scheduled to hold a first reading of the proposal on Nov. 18. A second reading could happen in December, Sanborn said.

If approved by a supermajority of the council, Portland Public Schools would move its central office, the West Day Treatment Program and the Multilingual and Multicultural Center to the Cumberland Avenue building.

The School Board unanimously approved the proposal during its regular meeting on Nov. 5.

At that meeting, Chief Operations Officer Peter Eglinton said representatives from Goodwill approached the School Department over the summer with their intent to sell the three-story, 50,000-square-foot building.

Since then, school administrators, teachers, students, parents and city officials have taken several tours of the building, which is in “excellent condition,” Eglinton said. The purchase price of the building would be $2.7 million, plus an additional $900,000 in renovation costs and other fees.

The proposal follows several years of searching for the appropriate property downtown, he added.

“We can be in the heart of the city and interact much more directly with our City Hall counterparts,” Eglinton said. “It’s a very exciting possibility.”

The move would also create more classroom space in three schools if the central office vacated Casco Bay High School, the Multilingual and Multicultural Center left Lyman Moore Middle School and other offices left Riverton Elementary School.

The West Day Treatment Program is temporarily based in Falmouth at the former Sampson D. Plummer School. It had previously been housed in — and got its name from — the 50-year-old West School on Douglass Circle, a building that was closed in the spring after years of disrepair.

Several school staffers and representatives from the multi-lingual community spoke in favor of the project last week, but resident Steven Scharf wasn’t convinced, saying the project was being railroaded through the process at “lightning speed.”

“The question is: Where’s the money going to come from?” Scharf asked.

Board member Laurie Davis said a downtown location for the central office would strengthen communication and cooperation between the School Department and the rest of city government, a problem that has existed for decades.

“There was always a feeling of a chasm between the city and the schools,” Davis said. “The collaboration and the synergy that we’ll be able to create simply by being located in the same part of the city will be huge. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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