March 17, 2010

New school project back on track


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“As mayor, I regret that the debate became heated. Whenever the city has to deal with issues of this magnitude, such as closing a school or relocating students, emotions can run high for all involved, but I am confident of our ability to move forward on the many important issues ahead of us.” – Mayor Edward Suslovic

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Staff Writer

Supporters of a plan to build a $19.6 million elementary school in Portland expressed relief Thursday after three city councilors who blocked the state-funded project responded to growing community pressure by saying they will change their votes.

Mayor Edward Suslovic and Councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue said they would step out of the way and allow the Ocean Avenue project to go to referendum on June 10. They will ask the council to reconsider the matter and vote again on April 18.

The new school would replace the aging Clifford Elementary School on Falmouth Street, where Nancy Tryzelaar has taught kindergarten for 18 years.

''It's wonderful news,'' Tryzelaar said Thursday evening. ''We were so dreadfully upset Tuesday when we learned about the council vote. As much as we appreciate the architectural beauty of Clifford, it's 100 years old. This new school is a wonderful opportunity.''

On Monday, a plan to borrow $19.6 million to build the new school failed to win council approval on a 6-3 vote. The council needs seven votes to issue bonds. The state would reimburse the money.

''Given our conversations with members of the School Committee, we are in agreement that the decision regarding the construction of the Ocean Avenue elementary school will now properly go before the voters,'' the three councilors said in a written statement.

They decided to change their votes because members of the School Committee assured them ''that they are equally committed to completing an elementary facilities plan in the very near future,'' according to the statement.

''I think Ed (Suslovic) became informed about some of the things he needed to know about the comprehensive plan we've started to develop,'' said John Coyne, committee chairman. ''I'm glad this will get into the voters' hands. This (conflict) was an unneeded distraction from everything else that's going on.''

Portland officials are reviewing a $274.5 million budget proposal for 2008-09 that would eliminate 118 city and school jobs.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who was chairman of the panel that developed the school project, said he won't feel confident that it's moving forward until it wins council approval. Suslovic also served on the panel.

''I will feel far more comfortable when I see three more hands in the air,'' Mavodones said.

''I'm pleased that this may be over, but I am disappointed that we wasted several days on this when we have very serious budget matters to consider,'' he continued. ''This was handled inappropriately and it's going to take some time to rebuild trust. I hope everyone has learned a lesson from this.''

Monday's surprise vote rocked Maine's largest city, prompting phone calls, e-mail campaigns and at least one petition drive pressuring the councilors to reconsider.

Suslovic's wife, Jennifer Southard, resigned as president of the Clifford School PTO to stem concerns over a perceived conflict of interest, she said.

Portland's legislative delegation sent a letter urging the councilors to change their votes because, in part, ''the long-term implication of this action could affect the availability of state education and construction funding in the years to come.''

The letter was e-mailed Wednesday and signed by House Speaker Glenn Cummings, Reps. Charles Harlow, John Brautigam, Anne Haskell, Jon Hinck, Boyd Marley and Anne Rand, and Sens. Joseph Brannigan and Ethan Strimling,

The tide began to turn Wednesday afternoon after reported that school officials might have to close Clifford School because the district couldn't afford $10 million in renovations to address long-standing structural fire code violations.

The three councilors called a news conference Wednesday evening at City Hall to say they would change their votes if school officials agreed to close a second elementary school. The new school would serve 440 students -- 270 from Clifford and 170 from other elementary schools.

The three councilors said the city couldn't afford to increase capacity in its elementary schools, and suggested that the School Committee use several past building studies to identify a second school.

At the end of the news conference, a second group of councilors took to the podium, accusing their colleagues of hijacking a proposal that's been in the works for three years and holding the city hostage to their demands.

''As mayor, I regret that the debate became heated,'' Suslovic said in Thursday's prepared statement. ''Whenever the city has to deal with issues of this magnitude, such as closing a school or relocating students, emotions can run high for all involved, but I am confident of our ability to move forward on the many important issues ahead of us.''

The councilors' prepared statement also said:

''It is important that the public understands that our actions have been driven by the need to make sure that all programs funded by the city's taxpayers are efficient and cost-effective, and we remain steadfast in that commitment.

''Finally,'' the statement said, ''we are hopeful that with the enormous work ahead of all of us, especially this year's challenging budget, we will be able to work together respectfully and collaboratively on the many other issues we will face together in the future.''

If voters approve the project on June 10, construction will start next spring and the school will open in August 2011.

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

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