With Saccarappa Elementary School over capacity and growing, Westbrook school officials have launched a campaign for a renovation project that would be funded entirely by city taxpayers.

The work began Monday, when 40 residents and School Committee members gathered in the “cafegymitorium” of Saccarappa for an informational meeting. The room, built with the rest of the school in the 1950s, serves as a cafeteria and meeting space for the roughly 330 students, and the school’s staff has been charged with finding increasingly creative ways of staggering use of the room during lunch periods.

With student enrollment expected to rise, the school department has begun preliminary architectural studies to look at expanding Saccarappa and also complete an unfinished third-floor wing of Westbrook Middle School, which would add six classrooms. Both projects would be paid for entirely by taxpayers.

The meeting, led by Superintendent of Schools Marc Gousse and other school officials, aimed to update parents on the need for an expansion and the process to get it done.

Dean Flanagan, the department’s director of operations, said requests for qualifications have already been submitted and returned by six architectural firms for the eventual design of the expansions. However, Gousse said, no specific designs or plans have been submitted or approved. Once a final design is complete and approved by the School Committee, a referendum will go before Westbrook voters.

On Tuesday, Brian Mazjanis, the principal of the school, walked the halls while students carefully carried lunch trays back to their classrooms. Most of the school’s students eat lunch in their classrooms, with some children often spilling out onto tables in the hallway.

Mazjanis said he tries to convey to parents that their children aren’t learning inside closets, but that some innovation from the staff is required. He also says while they’re making it work, the students’ experience isn’t what the staff would prefer.

Former Saccarappa Principal Kate Hersom and reading teacher Debbie Houle stood in Houle’s classroom Tuesday, a former storage room for custodians. Hersom and Mazjanis discussed a new space heater pending for the room. Each remembers a time when there was extra space at the school.

“We’re making do the best we can, and that’s just what we have to do,” Mazjanis said.

“When I was principal, we had a spare room that we had meetings in,” Hersom said.

“Those days are gone,” Mazjanis said. “Unless this project comes along.”

Mazjanis, a veteran school administrator, has already seen major construction projects in Westbrook schools, highlighted by the building of the new Westbrook Middle School in 2010.

At the meeting Monday, resident Dale Perry asked why the department decided to wait on building the wing of classrooms at the middle school, which will cost more to build now than in 2009.

“We just voted for $9 million for a new public services facility that the city said they need desperately,” he said. “So now we’ll have more. It’ll be interesting as far as our taxes.”

Perry said he’s also worried about the rate of growth in Westbrook and what that could mean for the school system, and asked school officials why they didn’t see this coming.

“Last year, you said this was down the road a ways,” he said.

Another resident asked why officials didn’t use their past enrollment study to foresee the considerable growth.

School officials said this year there was an unexpected jump in enrollment.

“What changed? Growth and development,” Gousse said.

During the last year, multiple housing plans have been unveiled in Westbrook, including the recent Blue Spruce Farm subdivision off Spring Street, which will add 180 units.

The mother of one student said there has been discussion about overcrowding at Saccarappa for a few years, and questioned why the plan was just getting off the ground. She said by the time an expansion is complete, her son will be in middle school.

Gousse defended the department’s decision to close Prides Corner Elementary School in 2012, owing to some $2 million in repairs required at the aging school. Since that time, with development rising in Westbrook, some residents and elected officials have questioned the decision, given the recent enrollment study that predicts continued growth.

Gousse also said the Prides Corner parcel, given its size and layout, didn’t offer room to expand if needed.

“It has space, it’s flat, and it just made sense to look at this facility,” he said about Saccarappa.

Peter Lancia, Westbrook’s director of teaching and learning, said Monday that any expansion would help the department catch up on programming needs, specifically the need for smaller learning spaces for English Language Learner (ELL) students, and students with learning disabilities.

“We have a lot of kids here who have varying needs,” he said.

Gousse said that during the last three years, Westbrook’s population of ELL students has increased 800 percent. Westbrook now has the third highest population of ELL students, behind Portland and Lewiston.

Sitting in his office Tuesday, which serves as the only conference room in the building, Mazjanis said he often leaves to allow special meetings to take place.

The school’s former library, near the front entrance, is now used for the English Language Learner program. Starting last school year, a portable classroom was placed in the back of the property, adjacent to the playground. It’s used as a library and music room.

For some parents, this creates an added safety concern. One parent asked if the school needed to add employees to specifically supervise the transition of students from in and out of the modular.

According to the school department, Saccarappa is the city’s only elementary school in use that was built for primary-aged children. The original projected enrollment for this year was 310, but currently sits at 335. Next year, according to a study rolled out in the fall of 2014, the enrollment will be between 345-362.

“Another 30 kids aren’t going to fit here,” one resident said, adding that community input into any expansion decision is important. “We are just a small fraction of the people.”

While bringing her class out to the portable classroom Wednesday, Saccarappa kindergarten teacher Selena Marden said the portable provides some challenges for students and staff. With no bathroom, students must be accompanied by an adult back inside the school building, and days like Wednesday, with the morning temperature hovering around 10 degrees, are an added concern.

Gousse said once an architect is selected, the public will be asked to weigh in on planning and design for the project, and a budget for the proposed project.

“All we can do is advance a proposal that we feel is the best for our students, and is a reasonable number the taxpayers can support,” Gousse said.

No renovation cost figures were offered by school officials.

With a line of coats and boots in the foreground, students sit and eat on a table set up outside their classroom in the hallway of Westbrook’s Saccarappa Elementary School Monday. Due to a small cafeteria space, students eat in classrooms. Staff photo by Andrew RiceKindergarten teacher Selena Marden ushers her students to a portable classroom outside Saccarappa Elementary School on Wednesday. With 335 students at the school, which is expected to grow, the Westbrook School Department is developing plans for a renovation project. Staff photo by Andrew Rice

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