PORTLAND – A top state education official has given Portland verbal assurance that state funding of as much as $30 million will be available to replace Hall Elementary School and renovate Longfellow Elementary School.
Ellen Sanborn, the city’s finance director, told the school board Tuesday night that Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier told her and Mayor Michael Brennan in a meeting Monday that the two projects, now on a list for possible state funding, will be approved “in the next few years.”
“They’re swearing on a stack of Bibles that we’re going to get funding for Hall” and for Longfellow, Sanborn told the school board, which was scheduled to discuss proposals to replace Hall and renovate four other elementary schools. “It’s just a question of timing.”
The Hall school project, expected to cost $20 million, is ranked 12th on the list of Maine school buildings that need to be replaced. The Longfellow project, expected to cost $11.3 million is 18th.
The city was poised to ask its voters to approve a bond for as much as $45 million to pay to replace Hall and renovate Longfellow and three other elementary schools.
Because the city does not need to put projects under about $3.7 million out to votes, Sanborn said several other school renovations could be paid for out of the city’s capital improvement budget without any referendum.
Several school board members expressed skepticism about relying on state funding, given the tension over school funding in general with the current administration.
Gov. Paul LePage has proposed shifting some of the state’s education costs to school districts and flat-funding state aid to schools, putting financial pressure on districts.
Other board members noted that the plan was to improve all of Portland’s elementary schools, not just make significant improvements to a few.
” I feel very cautious basing this on one man’s word,” said board member Marnie Morrione. “So I would like to continue to move forward with the local (funding option) until we get confirmation, whatever that would look like.”
The Maine Department of Education oversees the School Revolving Renovation Fund, which is funded through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank.
With local voters’ approval, districts can borrow the state money and the state forgives as much as 70 percent of the loan. The rest is paid back over as much as 10 years interest-free.
Several school board members, staff members and city officials plan to meet with Rier on Friday to go over the proposal again and determine how much of the state funding would be forgiven.
“I agree with the skepticism but I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves,” said board Chairman Jaimey Caron. “If we have the opportunity to partner with the state for one or two schools, we can’t pass up that opportunity.”
The state covered most of the construction costs for Portland’s new East End and Ocean Avenue elementary schools.
“There is no such thing as free money. To think that the state money suddenly is going to fall out of the sky to rebuild Hall school is ludicrous,” said Steven Scharf, a resident who attended Tuesday’s meeting. “The taxpayers of the state of Maine are going to pay for that. Someone is going to pay for that.
“I implore you to ignore the state process,” Scharf said.
A Biddeford-based consulting firm has created four options for replacing Hall and renovating four other elementary schools. In its presentation Tuesday, even the least expensive of four options would cost more than the school district’s target budget of $46 million.
The least expensive option, for $48.6 million, would replace Hall and make “minimum improvements” to achieve “basic life safety” at the other four schools: Presumpscot, Lyseth, Reiche and Longfellow.
The consultant’s recommended option would cost $59.7 million and create space for small groups, pre-kindergarten classes, and music, arts, fitness and after-school facilities. It would also remove all trailers being used now for classrooms, add security systems, upgrade data infrastructure, increase security and make mandated stormwater treatment improvements.
It would also add new interior finishes at all of the schools and add administrative offices.
The other two options, for $65 million and $72 .4 million, add amenities to the recommended option, such as insulating exterior walls, adding greenery to rooftops, upgrading outdoor play space and school-specific proposals.
Oak Point Associates of Biddeford, an architectural, engineering and planning firm, was hired to develop the plans.
A task force in 2010 that evaluated the needs at the schools came up with the $46 million target budget.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted 791-6387 or at: