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November 14, 2012

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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.

Plan would spend $46 million on Portland elementary schools

By MATT BYRNE / Staff Writer

PORTLAND — School officials have proposed a sweeping, $46 million renovation plan for five deteriorating elementary schools in the city.

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.

The district has hired an architectural firm, Oak Point Associates of Biddeford, to evaluate the five schools.

Oak Point's team is expected to interview school leaders and administrators, and, by January, hold a series of meetings where parents and other community members will be encouraged to participate in the design process, said Robert C. Tillotson, the firm's president.

The city has budgeted $700,000 for initial planning of the improvements.

After the local design workshops, Oak Point and school leaders will give the public a second look in March, with a final report expected to be issued to the school board in June.

For the funding question to go before city voters in November, the renovation plan will have to go to the City Council by August.

Portland's elementary schools have had an unexpected influx of students in recent years, said Peter Eglinton, the district's chief operating officer. Elementary school programs now have 3,308 students, about 160 more than their designed limit.

"We're pretty much at capacity, if not a little bit above," Eglinton said in a phone interview.

According to enrollment projections by the New England School Development Council, a regional group on which Portland officials rely for forecasts, enrollment is expected to rise steadily over the next decade, from roughly 7,000 students this year to 7,446 in 2021-22, more than a 6 percent increase.

"One significant issue is, back in 2008 ... the concern was that we would have too much space," Eglinton said. "But what we have seen is enrollment has increased at the elementary school(s)."

The exact price of the renovations – and length of the bond to borrow the money – depends on Oak Point's assessment.

Regardless of the specifics, Snyder said, the economic downturn has pulled down the cost of borrowing to historic lows, so the estimate could decrease as architects and engineers do more specific evaluations.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: mbyrne@mainetoday.com





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