A $29.7 million bond to replace the Fred P. Hall Elementary School hasn’t even received a public hearing yet and already there is a movement afoot in Portland to build support for another borrowing package to begin upgrading four other elementary schools.

The City Council will hold a public hearing Feb. 17 on the Hall School replacement plan. If approved by the council and by city voters, the 440-student Hall School would be replaced with a new school for 558 students.

The project has been deemed enough of a priority that it qualified for state funding to cover nearly all of the cost. However, the city would have to cover $1.4 million of the price because of additional features approved by a special committee and the School Board.

The idea of asking Portland taxpayers to kick in extra money for a bigger cafeteria, bigger gymnasium, additional play structures and outdoor learning spaces, and certifying it as a “green” building, is prompting a broader discussion about other elementary schools that haven’t been upgraded since they were built 40 to 60 years ago.

“Planning for Hall School really puts this back into the spotlight,” said District 4 City Councilor Justin Costa, a former School Board member and school finance chairman. “It’s certainly hard for us to treat one school in isolation.”

Parents throughout the city, including those at Hall School, are organizing an effort to persuade the council to address the remaining elementary schools this year.

“We feel like we have to push hard this time,” said Judy Watson, a member of the Reiche Parent Teacher Organization. “Everyone is in agreement, but nothing ever seems to get done.”

Facility upgrades are typically made through the city’s long-term borrowing plan for major expenses, but a limited budget and a growing list of needs have left many projects without adequate funding. This year, spending on school facilities is only $950,000 of the $15.3 million Capital Improvement Plan budget, although that total is expected to increase to $3 million next year.

Meanwhile, a study three years ago about the four schools in question – Reiche, Presumpscot, Longfellow and Lyseth – estimated that nearly $50 million would be needed to bring them up to the standards of other schools in the district. And while the new Hall school will be mostly paid for by the state, the cost of improvements sought for the other elementary schools could fall entirely on Portland taxpayers.

City Council Finance Chairman Nicholas Mavodones acknowledged that the schools are in need of upgrades, but said discussion about a November referendum is “premature.”

“We have the whole city to manage,” Mavodones said. “We need to make sure people understand the financial implications. It’s going to be a tax increase, but how are you going to offset that by a reduction in spending?”

During the public comment period at last week’s City Council meeting, two parents of Reiche school students asked the council to put another bond before city voters.

Joanna Frankel told councilors that she chose to live in the West End because of the Reiche teachers she met. She’s not only worried about a leaky roof in the library and the deteriorating outdoor ramps used by all students, including those in wheelchairs, but also security at the school, which was built in the 1970s and has no walls separating the classrooms.

“It is in horrible condition,” she said. “The (city’s school) buildings should match the teaching and learning happening in there, and right now they are not.”

FOUR SCHOOLS WITH ‘DIRE NEED’

According to parents interviewed, Reiche Elementary School has been plagued with a leaky roof for years, forcing staff to use blue tarps to protect library books and a neighborhood organization to use sandbags during rainstorms; bricks are falling off Longfellow Elementary School; three portable classrooms, which lack plumbing, have been used for second-, third- and fourth-graders at Presumpscot Elementary School since 2006; and one portable classroom is being used at Lyseth Elementary School.

All of the schools appear to lack a proper amount of security, storage and work spaces for students and teachers, and are in need of upgrades to electrical and mechanical systems, as well as weatherization and accessibility, according to the 2012 study of the schools.

“I don’t think people realize how dire the elementary schools are in need of repair,” said Katie Lamb, co-president of the Hall School Parent Teacher Organization. “When you hear of parents talking about it raining in their school building, we can certainly feel their pain.”

Inequity among Portland schools has been a topic of concern for years, especially after the East End Community School was built in 2006 and the Riverton Elementary School was renovated in 2007.

In 2010, an elementary school task force determined that the older elementary schools fell short of current educational standards. An in-depth study of the school produced the 2012 Building For Our Future report that estimated nearly $50 million would be needed to renovate the schools.

Valerie Wilson, director of the Presumpscot Family Council, has three children, two of whom are still in Presumpscot. Her daughter is one of the students who have been assigned to the portable classrooms for the second year in a row. Students must bundle up to go into the main building several times a day to use the restroom, get lunch or use the library.

“We’re not a California school,” Wilson said. “They’re walking outside in this weather – in the rain and snow. Everything is inside the building besides their classroom. As a parent you feel bad for them because they’re removed from the rest of the student body and they’re not interacting with other kids in the hall. They’re just set aside.”

School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrione said the board has directed staff to work with Oak Point Associates, which authored the 2012 report, to revise the cost estimates and the scope of work at each of the schools.

OVERCOMING LONG DELAYS

The length of time it has taken to formalize plans for Hall School, which was in need of replacement even before it was significantly damaged by fire in September 2012, is also adding urgency for some. Hall was added to the state’s school construction list in 2010, but it is not expected to open until 2018.

“If we waited eight more years on some of these schools, we would not be performing our jobs as well,” Morrione said. “Really, it’s been too long. These facilities have needed to be improved and updated for years.”

The renewed push has the support of at least some city councilors, as well as Mayor Ethan Strimling, who is eager for the schools to present a plan that the full council can support.

“A lot of us feel very strongly that we can’t let another generation of kids go through these schools in an inadequate learning environment,” Strimling said. “Literally, we’ve had almost two generations of kids go through Hall School from the point we needed it replaced. That is simply too long.”