SOUTH PORTLAND — For the first time ever, the Maine State Board of Education has agreed to help pay for a school construction project in South Portland, school officials announced Wednesday.

The state board voted unanimously Monday to put Mahoney Middle School, one of the city’s two aging middle schools, on its Approved Projects List, a board spokeswoman said. The project’s cost, design and location have yet to be determined.

Mahoney, built in 1922 as the city’s high school, was rated No. 14 on a prioritized statewide list of proposed school construction projects that applied for funding in 2010-2011. Memorial Middle School, built in 1967, was rated No. 55 on that list.

Superintendent Ken Kunin said the South Portland School Department is excited to partner with state education officials to “potentially receive significant state funding” for a new or renovated middle school – something the district has been anticipating for more than a decade.

“We’ve been hoping and waiting for this,” Kunin said. “Both schools need extensive renovation to meet the needs of our students now and into the future.”

As higher-rated projects received funding approval in recent years, including the Hall School in Portland at No. 12, concern grew in South Portland that the state would call for fresh applications and create a new list of eligible projects, which happens every several years, Kunin said. Also approved for funding this week was the Lafayette School in Sanford, at No. 13.

South Portland school officials will work with the Maine Department of Education to complete a detailed, 21-step process that will include many opportunities for public education, involvement and input, Kunin said, including straw polls and a final referendum.

The Middle School Facilities Task Force will meet Aug. 18 in the Memorial Middle School library to begin planning its next steps in a development and construction process that will take five or six years, Kunin said.

“This process will help to determine how we move forward in a way that is both educationally sound for our students and fiscally responsible for our community,” he said.

RENOVATE OR BUILD NEW?

One of the first required steps will be to conduct an educational analysis and engineering study to determine whether to consolidate the city’s two middle schools and whether to renovate or build a new building on one of the existing sites or elsewhere in the city, Kunin said.

Public forums will be held to envision what the community wants for all students in grades 6 through 8 and to learn more about the state funding and facilities development process. While districts have great flexibility in designing individual schools, they must meet certain design standards in order to receive state funding.

Mahoney serves about 325 students in an 87,200-square-foot building that sits on 15 acres at Ocean Street and Broadway, near Mill Creek Park. The site includes a multipurpose playing field that was built on an unstable construction landfill and a baseball field that’s considered unplayable, according to the state funding application.

Memorial serves about 400 students in a 95,240-square-foot building that sits on 17 acres at 120 Wescott Road, which runs between Broadway and Westbrook Street in the Thornton Heights neighborhood. The site includes a baseball field, a multipurpose playing field and an outdoor basketball court.

While Mahoney is an architecturally striking, landmark building, its site is considered too small to accommodate a major expansion, let alone a combined middle school, Kunin said. If Memorial is the chosen site for the middle school project, the building has so many problems that it probably would be cheaper to tear it down and build new than to renovate and expand, he said.

SIGNIFICANT DEFICIENCIES

Both buildings have significant structural, health, safety and handicapped-access deficiencies, along with asbestos throughout and inadequate heating, ventilation, plumbing, electrical and communication systems.

Three-story Mahoney has no elevator, no hot water in bathrooms and no fire lanes around the building, which limits first responders’ access during emergencies. Memorial has no sprinkler system, a gym roof that doesn’t meet snow-load requirements, a buckling interior brick wall, water infiltration that’s causing mold and air quality problems, and heating costs that are about two times higher than Mahoney’s, Kunin said.

More than a decade ago, the district conducted a lengthy study of the middle schools and South Portland High School. Voters approved a $47.3 million high school renovation and expansion project that was completed last year.

Last year, the city’s School Board voted to create the Middle School Facilities Task Force, which includes school staff and board members, city councilors, parents and community members. The task force has met monthly since May 2015 to start the process of assessing the condition of the two middle schools and their ability to meet current and future educational needs.

In February, after a competitive bidding process, the School Board picked WBRC Architects to do the middle school project. Kunin said WBRC has extensive experience working with communities across the state of Maine to design and construct beautiful, functional schools that anticipate future needs, including Hampden Academy in Hampden, Ocean Avenue School in Portland and Brewer Community School in Brewer.

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

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