PORTLAND, Maine — Despite a push from the Portland School Board, parents and school administrators, a $39.9 million project to renovate three elementary schools will likely have to wait until June 2014 before going to voters.
City Council Finance Committee members last week shot down a board proposal to hold a November referendum on work at Presumpscot, Lyseth and Reiche elementary schools, citing a need for clarity about state funding for two other high-priority elementary schools, Hall and Longfellow.
Committee members were skeptical about receipt of an expected $30.9 million in state funding for Hall and Longfellow, which state officials have previously said is likely, but is not guaranteed. The fate of the money will not be known until early next year.
The 3-0 committee vote came after School Department officials, administrators, teachers and parents urged a November vote in hope that voters would approve the bond and begin renovations as soon as possible on schools considered in desperate need.
Councilor Jill Duson opposed the November vote and said a June referendum will allow supporters of the renovations to organize a campaign to bolster support for all five schools at once.
“A package is the best opportunity to do this. … We’ve got to line up our ducks and put together the best package,” Duson said. “I don’t want as we approach the last hurdle to jump too fast and fall down.”
Voters would have to approve two questions on the ballot, one for the locally funded projects and the other for the state-funded projects. But, even with a June vote, if state aid does not come through for Hall or Longfellow, another referendum would be needed to approve the local funding for those projects.
State funding for the schools would renovate Longfellow and pay for a new Hall school, which was damaged by a fire last fall. The Department of Education provides funding for schools through its Major Capital School Construction Program, which ranks school projects based on need.
Hall is ranked 12th on the state’s list; Longfellow is 18th and Reiche is 21st. And while the state typically only funds six projects on the list at a time, about 20 schools received funding in the last cycle.
While Hall and Longfellow have a good chance of receiving state aid, four high schools — typically the most expensive projects — are ahead of them, which could potentially limit their chances of state funding in the next round.
After the committee chairman, Councilor John Anton, left the July 25 meeting early, Duson and Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. voted to delay the referendum, while Councilor David Marshall preferred a vote in November.
“This is another case of deferred maintenance on our infrastructure. We’ve known for decades that we should be investing in these things,” Marshall said, noting the risks with state aid. “I think that it’s worth taking that risk because it’s not acceptable to wait.”
The full City Council will eventually have to vote to schedule the referendum.
Mavodones said at the meeting one of the reasons he pushed for the June referendum is because he is concerned that animosity toward Portland may interfere with the state fulfilling its funding obligation.
“I’m very hesitant about everybody’s confidence about what the state is going to do,” he said. “I’m not terribly confident about Longfellow at all from a state funding perspective. It seems very uncertain. We’ve been told politics won’t get in the middle, but we’re Portland and politics get in the middle of things.”
School Board Chairman Jaimey Caron said the funding formula is objective and that blocking funding for Portland schools would also block funding for schools behind the city on the state’s list.
“I don’t think that’s good politics, nor do I think that’s the politics at play here,” he said. “There’s no monkey-business going on with the list.”
Caron said postponing the vote only delays the work on the schools. He said work on the design could have started during the winter if voters approved a bond in November, and construction could have begun in the summer of 2014. Now, the schools and their 1,100 students will likely have to wait until the summer of 2015 for renovations to start.
“To me, we’ve waited long enough and I feel the delay is unnecessary,” Caron said after the meeting. “We were hoping to go out to bid [if the November bond passed] and then move seamlessly into design. Now we have to wait nine months before we can act. I’m disappointed.”
Before the vote, Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk laid out the district’s case pushing for a November vote, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
“Yes. Life is good here,” he said, playing on the city’s new slogan, “but it could be a lot better for the thousands of students attending our schools.”
Caulk recommended moving ahead with the November vote because of the declining facilities, a need to provide appropriate learning space for students, and the effect on the city as a whole.
“There’s a capital investment and also a human capital investment that we need to make,” he said.
The expected tax impact of the $39.9 million locally funded bond would be an additional $67 a year on a $200,000 house, according to the School Department.
The committee decision came after principals from the five schools described their buildings and how study space is inadequate, accessibility is poor and that safety is in question.
Lenore Williams, principal at Lyseth, said students at her school are forced to learn in the hallways due to space constraints and described the building’s needs as “imminent.”
“A school facility should not act as an obstacle, but should act as a vehicle for instruction and learning,” she said.
Presumpscot Principal Cynthia Loring said about 100 students are crowded into temporary modular classrooms, which are a lackluster learning space and create safety issues when students have to leave to go to the bathroom in the main building.
“It’s hard to make sure the building is locked at all times. … This poses increased safety risks to students in modulars,” she said. “Having students in modulars doesn’t reflect or promote the inclusiveness we need in our schools.”
Katerine Kimball, a Lyseth parent, summed up much of the sentiment from the nearly 20 parents and other residents who spoke, asking for a November vote.
“Going to the school, it’s depressing,” Kimball said. “It’s a dump.”