PORTLAND — After years of talking about it, school officials are getting serious about moving and expanding the day-treatment program at the former West Elementary School on Douglass Avenue.

They say the $1.3 million program, which serves about 50 students with significant behavioral and emotional problems, is a cost-saving operation that should be moved to a larger building and expanded to serve other districts.

“Portland finds itself in a position to broaden what it does to help its neighbors,” said Jaimey Caron, the School Committee’s facilities chairman.

At a yearly cost of $26,600 per student, the West School program saves the district about $16,800 on the average $43,400 it spends to send a student to a private day-treatment program such as Spurwink Services, said Barbara Dee, Portland’s special-education director.

Because the West School program is so cost-effective, officials from other districts in Greater Portland regularly ask if the program has openings for their students, which it doesn’t, Dee said.

Built in 1962 on a former landfill, the West School is too small and run-down to support a regional program, and engineers have determined that the site is safe but unsuitable for expansion or significant renovation, school officials said.
Superintendent Jim Morse has discussed the matter with state education officials, and School Committee members are talking about hiring a consultant to help the district develop a formal plan to move and expand the program.

“There’s a potential for us to regionalize this program,” Caron said. “It’s difficult for most districts to do (on their own) because their numbers are low. Expanding our program would allow us to pool resources and save money for everyone.”

Moreover, Caron said, the day-treatment program must be moved because keeping it at the West School sends an unintended message that the district doesn’t care about the students who attend classes there. Portland Adult Education occupies part of the building.

Caron said hiring a consultant to help the district find a suitable location for the day-treatment program and work out expansion details could cost as much as $30,000.

“If we’re serious about making a change like this, we have to be willing to make a small investment to make it happen,” he said.

The West School program serves students of all ages, combining academic instruction with intensive counseling and behavioral therapy. The staff includes a director, eight teachers, more than a dozen educational technicians and three social workers.

The program was criticized in a recent report by consultants who reviewed Portland’s special-education system. The report said that West School was costly, and it questioned the school’s outcomes – without providing further explanation or backup data. Dee and other school officials dispute this point.

One site under consideration for the day-treatment program is the state-run Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island in Falmouth, just over the city line.

The state built a $2.3 million energy-efficient educational center at the Baxter School in 2004. Since then, the school has moved its high school students to Portland High School and plans to send its middle school students to Moore Middle School next fall.

The Baxter School already leases space to The Friends School of Portland, The REAL School and Hear Me Now.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]