SOUTH PORTLAND — A recommendation to build a new, consolidated middle school for students in grades 5 through 8 got a warm reception when it was announced at a public forum Thursday night.

The $50 million school would be funded by the state and replace both Mahoney and Memorial, aging middle schools that house grades 6 through 8.

Building a larger middle school, on a site yet to be determined, would help address school deficiencies throughout the district, as required by the state.

“We looked K-8 for a district solution,” Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani told an audience of about 100 community members.

Germani noted that the city’s elementary schools are so crowded that some instruction is provided in closets, hallways and alcoves. Though all five were renovated in the early 2000s, instructional needs have evolved and expanded significantly in the last decade, she said.

Moving the fifth grades to a consolidated middle school would free up 17 to 19 classrooms for other purposes, Germani said, such as special education instruction, classes for students who are learning to speak English and expansion of the district’s pre-kindergarten program.

In its recommendation, the Middle School Facilities Committee suggested that the design of a consolidated middle school might separate grades 5 and 6 from grades 7 and 8 by placing them in different wings or sections of the building. This would address some parents’ concerns about fifth-graders social and academic readiness for middle school.

“We have looked closely at the pros and cons of moving to a 5-8 configuration,” the committee wrote on an FAQ sheet handed out at the meeting. “Based on the input we have received from the community, we are committed to a design that makes a large school feel small.”

SPEAKERS OFFER SUPPORT

Comments and questions from about a dozen speakers were overwhelmingly positive. School officials dispelled concerns about the impact of a larger school on learning, sports teams and after-school activities. Several people praised the consolidation plan as thoughtful, practical and fiscally responsible.

“It makes sense to me,” said Susan Adams, parent of an eighth-grader.

Adams acknowledged after the meeting that the location of a consolidated middle school remains a worry for many people in a city with an east side and a west side. School officials won’t say which sites are being considered while the review and negotiations are underway.

“I do think there is concern about where it’s going to be because we’re so limited,” Adams said, noting that the city recently funded a $47.3 million high school renovation and expansion because a suitable alternative site couldn’t be found.

Mahoney serves about 325 students and sits on 15 acres at Ocean Street and Broadway, near Mill Creek Park, on the east side. Renovating or building a new Mahoney on a different site would cost $23 million to $26 million, the facilities committee determined.

Memorial serves about 400 students and sits on 17 acres at 120 Wescott Road, in the Thornton Heights neighborhood, on the west side. Building a new Mahoney would cost $30 million. A consolidated 6-8 middle school would cost at least $44 million.

STATE FUNDING AVAILABLE

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

State funding is available to renovate Mahoney, build a new school for Mahoney students or build a new, consolidated middle school, said Michael Johanning, a senior architect at WBRC Architects-Engineers, the firm working on the project.

Mahoney’s site is too small to accommodate a consolidated school, but the architecturally and historically important building would be preserved, Johanning said. Memorial’s site could accommodate a consolidated school, but it isn’t considered ideal because it’s not centrally located and the building has too many problems to warrant renovation.

City taxpayers would have to foot the bill to renovate Memorial, build a new school for Memorial students, or include any features in a middle school that are beyond state guidelines, such as larger classrooms or green enhancements.

Superintendent Ken Kunin said one green enhancement under consideration is a geothermal heating system. It would eliminate the nearly $200,000 heating bill for Mahoney and Memorial and provide free air conditioning to greatly improve learning in warm weather, he said.

Next steps include recommending and holding a straw vote on a site, hopefully in the spring, Germani said. A second straw vote would be held on a concept plan, followed by a citywide referendum on the project as early as November 2018.

With that time line, the state would put the project out to bond in 2020 and the school could be completed as early as 2022.

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

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