Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By MATT BYRNE / Staff Writer
PORTLAND — School officials have proposed a sweeping, $46 million renovation plan for five deteriorating elementary schools in the city.
Portland school buses board students from the Hall Elementary School in October. The school board is seeking $46 million in renovations to five Portland elementary schools, including Hall.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
The plan comes more than two decades after the last major taxpayer-funded renovation effort, and caps four years of study and effort to determine how best to improve the deteriorating schools.
Funding for the project is planned to go before voters in November 2013. The city has already approved $3 million this year for capital improvements, but school officials said Tuesday that the annual allotments are not enough for such a large project.
"It's an absolute priority for us to make sure the public elementary schools are up to date and as equitable as possible," said Kate Snyder, chairwoman of the Portland Board of Public Education, at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Renovations are planned at the Lyseth, Reiche, Longfellow and Presumpscot elementary schools.
Identified for replacement is Hall Elementary School, where an electrical fire in September forced a temporary closure.
The three-year construction plan would bring the five schools up to the standards of the three elementary schools that Portland has built or renovated in recent years.
The five problem schools, built in the period from 1952 to 1972, present a bottleneck for the district's potential to accommodate more elementary students, a fact laid bare by the predawn fire at the Hall school on Sept. 17.
After the blaze, administrators scrambled to place students temporarily while workers repaired the charred roof and other damage caused by roughly 7,000 gallons of water that the sprinkler system released during the fire.
"It's not just this particular school," said City Councilor Nick Mavodones, speaking in the fluorescent-lit Hall Elementary School gymnasium, which doubles as a cafeteria for the school's 437 students. "The Finance Committee (is) strongly in favor of moving forward on this."
Over the next 10 years, district-wide enrollment is expected to go up about 6 percent, about 450 students.
In a prepared statement, Mayor Michael Brennan said the City Council recognizes the need for the spending, and called the problems at the elementary schools "longstanding."
"Improving our elementary schools will help attract young families and businesses to our city," Brennan said. "That is critical to Portland's economic future."
If approved at their projected cost, the renovations will be the first major educational capital improvement funded exclusively by Portland taxpayers since 1990, when voters approved a $14 million renovation of Portland High School.
Since then, only one other school renovation, at Riverton Elementary in 2006, has been funded exclusively by local dollars. Others, including the East End Community School and the Ocean Avenue Elementary School, were funded in part or entirely with state funds, according to statistics provided by the district.
Building issues now identified range from minor inconveniences such as poor traffic patterns to structural problems such as limited handicapped access, or a lack of sprinkler systems at the Lyseth and Longfellow schools.
At the Hall school, water regularly pools on the roof, and wood and sills have begun to rot.
Lyseth Elementary, built in 1960, may be most in need of an update, according to preliminary assessments. High enrollment and outdated modular classroom design have pushed students and teachers into vestibules and closets for instruction time.
Some building materials contain asbestos, and the school has only one large common space, which does triple duty as a gymnasium, a cafeteria and an auditorium.
"We have a lot of buildings that have a lot of character," said Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk. "The renovations at each school could vary."
Among the design challenges will be to maintain the unique feel of each school while providing a higher-quality learning environment, Caulk said.
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