City councilors, school board members and the public listened and asked questions this week at a presentation of the latest plans to renovate South Portland High School.

Among issues discussed is whether the best time to ask voters to approve funding for the renovations would be in June or November 2010. Also discussed were why the renovations are necessary and also how problems with the city’s aging middle schools will be addressed.

The Secondary Schools Facilities Committee made the presentation at a joint workshop of the City Council and the Board of Education on Monday, Oct. 26.

That committee is working on developing a less-costly and scaled-down proposal to renovate the high school and build an addition to it. The committee has been trying to develop a revised plan after city voters defeated a $56 million proposal to upgrade the high school in November 2007. The margin was 3-1.

Since early fall, the committee has been meeting to shrink the footprint of the renovations, reduce the overall cost of the project, and include as much green technology in the design as possible.

The plans presented are still in draft form, but the basic outline calls for keeping the original 1950s part of the building and tearing down and replacing an annex with a new classroom wing.

The annex was built later, but is in poor condition and has a widening “crack” separating it from the main building, according to school Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

A final design recommendation is expected by mid-December.

Committee members on Monday stressed that no price tag has yet been determined. However, members of the committee have previously said they hope to keep costs in the $40 million range.

Keeping costs down is a major reason why the committee says it is advocating going to city voters in June 2010 with a borrowing package for the renovations. They said the earlier the project starts the more likely that the city could take advantage of the favorable construction climate.

Bids for school projects in Gorham, Falmouth and Brunswick this fall came in from 25 percent to 34 percent under budget, according to Dan Robbins of Harriman, the Auburn architectural and engineering firm working on the high school project.

Robbins said he expects prices to remain low through 2011.

Greg Marles, director of buildings and grounds for the South Portland schools, said that if the bond is approved in June 2010, the city can go out to bid in the spring of 2011. Construction could then begin the summer of 2011, when students are not in school. The project will take 33 months to complete, he said.

But Councilor James Soule said he doesn’t believe there will be much cost differential if the vote is in November 2010, when more residents go the polls. “I’m highly supportive of the high school and I’m highly supportive of a November vote,” Soule said.

But Soule is not running for re-election Nov. 3 so won’t be on the council when it votes early next year on whether to send the bond out in June.

Councilor Linda Boudreau, who will be on the council then, said: “I’m OK with a June referendum. Everyone is invited to come (and vote).”

But she raised concerns about the cost of renovating Memorial and Mahoney middle schools.

Godin said the South Portland school district is not applying for state aid for the high school because it’s so unlikely it will qualify for any money. However, she said, the district plans to apply to the state for funding to help with the middle schools. But she also said that any state help the city receives is likely to be in the same percentage as state education aid the city qualifies for each year – about 11.7 percent.

Boudreau said that would amount to a large local share of the cost. She urged school officials to determine what the expense of renovating the middle schools would be so that city residents can know the total needed.

The committee also spoke of the fact that the high school is under a warning from the New England Association of Schools & Colleges to improve the facility. The accreditation group found the high school lacking in terms of health and safety issues, access for people with disabilities and opportunities for student learning.

If the high school doesn’t take significant steps to address the flaws, its accreditation could be in jeopardy when it’s reviewed again in about 10 years. But the school also could be put on probationary status in the meantime, high school Principal Jeanne Crocker said. She said that could be a concern with some colleges that high school students apply to.

A $5.8 million bond voters approved this past June funded some needed safety upgrades at the high school and the middle schools. The upgrades at the high school would be incorporated in the new plan.


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