PORTLAND – As city councilors met Thursday to consider putting a $40 million school renovation bond to a citywide vote, more than 200 students and teachers from Portland Adult Education rallied on the steps of City Hall to call for a new home for their program.
Portland Adult Education has been forced to move out of the deteriorating West School. Its supporters gathered at City Hall around 4:30 p.m. Thursday to say they don’t want to be forgotten while the city considers asking voters to renovate elementary schools and replace the aging Hall Elementary School.
Anja Hanson, academic adviser for Portland Adult Education, said students delivered a book of letters to city officials after the rally, handwritten messages expressing the students’ “dreams and desires.”
Their rallying cry was heard by members of the City Council’s Finance Committee and Mayor Michael Brennan, who met privately earlier in the day with Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk and Rob Wood, director of Portland Adult Education, to discuss building options.
“Portland Adult Education is a fabulous program,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones. “I don’t know how it fits into this analysis (of renovating schools) or if it even fits into the analysis, but we have been inundated with emails from people who want Adult Education to be under one roof.”
Wood said the program, which occupied the West School for 27 years, reaches more than 4,000 Portland residents each year. About 80 percent of its students are immigrants or refugees who have limited English language skills.
The West School was closed for good this month because a leaky roof and a furnace that broke down left the school department with no other choice.
When classes resume Sept. 16, Wood said, some students will take courses in leased space at the former Cathedral School, while others will use the ground floor of Portland High School. Wood said those are only temporary solutions until a permanent home can be found.
Peter Eglinton, chief operations officer for Portland schools, told the Finance Committee that a task force will be formed to look at Adult Education’s needs and try to find a new home for the popular program.
Funding to lease or buy a building likely would not be available before 2015, he said.
“There is no easy answer to finding a building,” said Wood, with Portland Adult Education needing about 20,000 square feet to meet all of its program and administrative needs.
Meanwhile, Brennan and the Finance Committee appeared reluctant to support holding a referendum in November to ask voters to approve borrowing about $40 million to renovate the Lyseth, Longfellow, Reiche and Presumpscot elementary schools.
Mavodones, Brennan and Councilor John Anton said it might make more sense to hold the vote in June 2014.
By then, they said, the city will know whether the Maine Department of Education will follow through on its verbal promise to fully fund the replacement of Hall Elementary School and possibly renovate Longfellow — projects totaling $30 million.
State law requires school renovation and building projects that receive state funds to be approved by local voters. That means Portland could have to hold a second referendum.
The Hall school is ranked 12th on the state’s funding priority list. The top six schools have already been funded and the state has indicated that it will provide more funding this year.
“I do believe there is a high degree of certainty that we will receive state funding for Hall school,” the mayor said.
Brennan said there is a “50 to 70 percent chance” that the Longfellow school will also qualify for state funding.
“Maybe we should step back and look at a June (2014) referendum,” Brennan said. “By then, all of our questions will have been answered.”
The Finance Committee will hold a public hearing and final vote on the school department’s bond referendum request in July. Committee members will make a recommendation to the City Council, which will consider the request in August.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: