School and city officials are awaiting the final figures for a major school expansion project that will most likely face voters this fall.

At a joint workshop between the City Council and School Committee this week, architect Dan Cecil of Harriman Associates estimated the renovation and expansion of both Saccarappa Elementary School and Westbrook Middle School would be in the range of $27.6 million.

A final figure is expected by a School Committee meeting Aug. 17, when school officials hope to forward a formal plan to the City Council.

The project would add 12 classrooms, a gym, library, cafeteria and field areas at Saccarappa, while also adding 12 classrooms to the middle school.

School officials have been planning the Saccarappa project for a few years because of much-needed upgrades and overcrowding. But recent growth in the entire district has added to capacity issues at the city’s remaining elementary schools – Canal and Congin – as well as the middle school.

This is the first year that the school department has had portable classrooms at all three elementary schools. The middle school, which opened in 2010, is considered over capacity by more than 100 students, and space is at a premium. A few “floating teachers” have no regular classrooms, a special education classroom uses the teacher’s lounge, and two sixth-grade classrooms are located in the original  computer lab area.

In a realignment move a few years ago, prior to the development growth in the city, the district closed Prides Corner Elementary School, which needed extensive repairs, and added fifth-graders to the middle school.

The price tag for Saccarappa is an estimated $23,058,888, while the middle school addition is $4,625,750. However, School Committee Chairman Jim Violette said the middle school figure was a deliberately high estimate.

Plans for the expansion project have grown since the original design, based largely on enrollment figures, increased residential development activity in the city and recent population studies that show the potential for more growth than the department previously expected.

Based on those studies, school officials are using a “middle of the road” number – that the district could grow by 331 students by 2025. After receiving the 91-page population study done by the consulting firm Planning Decisions, the school’s building committee decided on 12 classrooms at the middle school to account for future growth. Two classrooms will be built on each of the first two floors, and eight will be added to the incomplete third-floor wing.

Violette said Monday that the number could flucuate either way by about 10 percent. One population study was done using live birth statistics, while the other looked at development in the area.

A number of residents joined the workshop Monday to find out more about the project. Many have been vocally opposed at previous city meetings to the recent plans for a Phase 2 at Blue Spruce Farm subdivision, which is slated to add 303 units of mostly market-rate apartments.

Many have argued that the city should place a 180-day moratorium on large residential development in order to review the city’s comprehensive plan. A public meeting hosted by the City Council on Monday, Aug. 22, will focus on large-scale development in the city.

“If we hadn’t had the explosion of residential development in the last six months, we’d probably be talking about a smaller project,” Violette said Tuesday.

While councilors had some questions Monday, they were supportive of the school expansion project. Both elected bodies have been hearing from a lot of residents about the impact added development could have on schools that are already over capacity.

School Committee member Suzanne Joyce said the council understands the needs of the school district.

“They know we’re bursting at the seams,” she said.

“I think with all of this development, parents and school-aged children are frustrated that we’re putting up all these portables again,” Violette said, adding that many factors play into overcrowding, not just development.

Cecil read a statistic Monday that between the 2009 and 2015 school years, the district’s English Language Learner population grew from 94 to 326. ELL classrooms, as well as special education and Title 1 classrooms, typically have smaller class sizes.

The project must maintain a quick timeline in order to make it on the November ballot. Once the expansion proposal gets to the City Council, the approval requires two readings. Violette said he’s hoping the council will take up these votes on Aug. 29 and Sept. 12 in order for the necessary referendum language to be drafted by the city clerk.

City Councilor Anna Turcotte, who also served on the school’s building committee, said the completed design for the expansion project was “version 20,” referring to how much work was put into it.

Cecil said the committee looked at ways to save space and “not oversize,” while still accounting for future growth.

“It was hard for me as a parent to find that balance,” Turcotte said during the meeting, referring to acting in the interest of her constintuents and to a school system in need.

The project will be entirely funded by local taxpayers, most likely bonded for 20 years.

It has been an unusually busy time for the School Committee, which normally does not meet regularly in July or August. However, because of the search for a new superintendent and the school expansion project, “we’re meeting non-stop,” Joyce said.

Councilors had questions Monday about some design elements, such as security measures and the possible need for added staffing for the additional classrooms.

Councilor Michael Foley said the council needs the final figures in order to avoid any delays in the process toward referendum.

Cecil said that if approved, construction would most likely begin next summer, with a tentative completion timeline leading up to or during the 2019-20 school year.

Once the project is complete, the tentative plan by the school department is to move four classrooms from Canal and three classrooms from Congin – or about 140 students – to Saccarappa.

The expansion project would eliminate the need for modular classrooms, but depending on continued growth in the city, the department may need to add more during the next two years while construction is completed.

“We could be looking at more portables because of growth,” Violette said.

City Councilor Mike Sanphy said he’s concerned that residents will attribute the expansion project solely to the Blue Spruce Farm development, but Sanphy said Saccarappa has needed renovations for years. Sanphy also did not support closing Prides Corner Elementary School in 2012.

“I think people have to step back and look at everything,” he said.

 

A CLOSER LOOK:

The Westbrook City Council is hosting a public meeting to discuss citywide growth and development on Monday, Aug. 22, at 6 p.m. at the Westbrook Performing Arts center at 471 Stroudwater St.

The most up-to-date plan for a 12-classroom, 54,000 square-foot expansion at Saccarappa Elementary School also includes a gym, stage, library and cafeteria. The most recent cost estimate for the project is $23 million.


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