SOUTH PORTLAND – As she left the newly opened, just-completed wing of South Portland High School following Sunday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house, junior class member Emily Murray was unequivocal about what she had just seen.

“I love my new school,” she said. “I’m glad the taxpayers paid for it.”

“It’s impressive, and I think it’s going to draw people to the community,” said Murray’s mother, Chris Murray. “You look at these other communities that have these gorgeous schools and you wonder, ‘Why can’t ours be like that?’ Now, ours is like that, and even better.”

“I didn’t hear any negative comments,” added Murray. “I think everybody is impressed by the architectural design and the effort that people put into it. I think they spent the money wisely.”

Sunday’s ceremony, attended by nearly 400 people, marked the completion, after 19 months, of Phase I of the $47.3 million high school renovation project, for which voters agreed to borrow $41.5 million. Eventually, construction will add 100,000 square feet to the building at the corner of Highland Avenue and Mountain View Drive, providing space for 1,100 students.

The current head count at the school stands at 892, but a December 2008 enrollment projection drafted by Planning Decisions, a local research and analysis firm, predicts South Portland will buck a long-term trend of shrinking student populations elsewhere in the state.

The newly completed wing, which includes a new kitchen and cafeteria, a lecture hall, a new library (dubbed the learning commons), administrative offices and science classrooms as well as technology education and robotics rooms, opened to students on Monday. Previously, students were allowed access to the new weight and locker rooms and a fully renovated Beal Gymnasium.

Built in 1956, the gym presented some problems for Portland-based PC Construction, the firm that won the contract to build the new school. Roof trusses and basement supports were deemed inadequate for the new roof, which partially collapsed last summer during renovations.

“That turned out to be a sort of happy accident,” said Athletics Director Todd Livingston. “Initially, we were only going to refinish the old floor, but because of the leaks, and the water damage, we ended up getting a whole new gym floor out of it.”

About 500 feet of the old wood floor was saved with the hope of eventually fashioning mementos as fundraising items. Meanwhile, reaction to the resulting change has been spectacular.

“Everybody says the gym looks bigger now, but it’s the same space,” said Livingston. “I’ve actually heard other students at games say they want to transfer here now, just because of the gym.”

Ralph Baxter Jr., who chairs the building committee that has shepherded the construction project though more than one midnight meeting, said work is now 65 percent complete. That’s also the percentage remaining in the project’s $1.67 million contingency fund, due primarily to the gym issues.

Baxter’s father, Ralph Baxter Sr., was a longtime city councilor, former mayor, and principal at the high school starting in the mid-1970s, taking charge shortly after an annex went up linking Beal Gym to the oldest part of the school, built in 1952 as a junior high.

That annex fared poorly due to the construction methods of the day, and as long as 15 years ago Baxter Sr. was sitting on building committees seeking ways to rebuild the school. In 2007, voters rejected an initial bond proposal, leading to an intensive public education campaign during the second attempt, led by Baxter Jr. in 2010.

“This has been a long time coming, and I think the community should be very, very proud of what has been accomplished here. A lot of people put a lot of effort into this, and it has really paid off,” said Baxter Sr., who, coincidentally, hails originally from Ashland, the same small town in northern Maine that also is home to the high school’s current principal, Ryan Caron.

Echoing the words of Baxter Sr., Dan Cecil, of Portland-based architectural firm Harriman Architects and Engineers, said “more than 500 people” have been in involved with the project through the years, from sitting on various building committees to volunteering for outreach and educational campaigns.

“If that’s not a definition of a community project, I don’t know what is,” he said during Sunday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Still, while virtually every parent who toured the new building on Sunday declared themselves delighted with the building, a few expressed some reservations, as taxpayers.

“It certainly is beautiful, and a lot bigger and nicer than anything we had when I was a kid,” said John Collins, the father of a freshman and a junior, “but part of me looks around and thinks, ‘Is this all we get for $47 million?’ ”

“I think it definitely looks to be bigger than it needs to be,” said Ray Mileson, parent of a freshman. “You look at what you had as a kid, and this seems like tremendous overkill. I’m sure we could have got by with a smaller addition, but hopefully the taxpayers can afford it.”

That said, Mileson and his wife, Debbie, praised the building’s “open and airy” design, its “cutting-edge technology” and improvements made from when their older child, a 2013 graduate, attended the school, particularly given the reported state of the bathrooms.

“It has been in quite a state of disarray,” said Mileson. “It’s nice that they now have working facilities for the kids.”

“The ceilings were moldy and the bathrooms had doors missing on the stalls,” said freshman Brad Mileson. “If a building is good and everything is working in it, the students are more happy to be there than if everything is run down, and it will make them more eager for learning.”

Despite come criticism over size and cost, others said the new school will both inspire students and act as a magnet, drawing new residents to South Portland.

Bob Foster, a social worker at Scarborough High School, said he saw similar results from a renovation there in 2004.

“My experience is that made a tremendous difference in the attitude of the students,” he said. “I think this makes a tremendous statement to the students that we value them and their education.”

Foster said Scarborough’s new high school brought in an influx of new residents, and he predicted the same would hold true for South Portland.

“I think this type of asset in the community really makes the community attractive to families that value education and want a quality education for their kids,” he said.

According to Superintendent Suzanne Godin, who said the project is “on time and on budget,” work now turns to the 1970s-era annex located between Beal Gym and the oldest section of the building. That section, built in 1952 as a junior high school, will be renovated, while a new building will go up in place of the annex. That will mark the first significant impact on students from the project, as, according to Godin, four portable buildings, each holding two classrooms, will be needed for the second half of the 2013-2014 school year.

Also, Mountain View Avenue will be closed, but for a 12-foot emergency lane for fire and rescue vehicles, through completion of the rebuild at the end of 2014.

According to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, the eventual cost of the 20-year, $41.5 million bond could top $54 million. However, Godin says the real impact, when counting debt to be retired and reserve funds, will be $1,724 on the median home, valued at $200,000. That comes to approximately $86 per year, or $7 per month, she said.

A CLOSER LOOK

With Phase I of the $47.5 million renovation to South Portland High School complete, the administration is offering a deal to the public on furniture from the old building. Desks, chairs, tables, bookcases and other items will be sold at a flat rate of $5 per item on a first-come, first-serve basis. The sale takes place from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. from Tuesday, Jan. 14, to Thursday, Jan. 16, at the school department bus garage, located at 1142 Highland Ave.

South Portland High School junior Gaby Ferrel cuts the ribbon Sunday on the new wing at the school, marking the official completion of Phase I of a $47.5 million renovation project. During Sunday’s open house, several hundred parents and taxpayers got their first look at the new wing that includes the cafeteria, lecture hall, library (or, “learning commons,” as it’s now known), administrative offices and science classrooms. The new sections opened to students on Monday.  Craig Worth, director of transportation for the South Portland School Department, stands among the hundreds of pieces of surplus school furniture from South Portland High School available for sale later this month.  The assortment of furniture and electronics available at the public sale may include relics of the past, in this case low-technology chalk, found tucked away in a desk drawer by Craig Worth, director of transportation for the South Portland School Department. 


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