SOUTH PORTLAND — The most important questions about the future of the city’s two middle schools cannot be answered right now, School Board members were told Monday.

That’s because the state is driving the planning process, which involves a complex, 21-step evaluation of the city’s educational program and space needs at the middle schools, according to pre-project architect Michael Johanning.

Johanning, from WBRC, the firm the School Department hired last winter to help navigate the initial steps in the process, spoke in a board workshop Monday, Sept. 26.

The board chairman, Dick Matthews, said what most people want to know is how much funding the state would give the city, where a middle school would be built and how much money, if any, would be required from taxpayers.

“I must get these questions three times a day,” Matthews said.

Board member Richard Carter said the one question that seems to be on most people’s minds is where a new middle school might be built and when.

“We have to do the dance with the state,” Ken Kunin, superintendent of schools, said. “Then, we’ll find out what they’re willing to pay for.”

As part of the process to receive any state funding for a renovated or new middle school, South Portland must first evaluate the costs and space needs for three different scenarios – a renovated and remodeled Mahoney Middle School, a newly constructed Mahoney, or a new consolidated middle school, Johanning said.

In addition, he said, the School Department must “work up a cost analysis for a renovated Memorial Middle School,” even though that’s currently not an option for state funding.

The School Board reconvened its Middle School Facilities Committee more than a year ago after a five-year hiatus, with the goal of finally addressing whether the city should have two separate middle schools or one consolidated school.

Then, in early August, news came from the Department of Education that the Maine State Board of Education had placed Mahoney on its list of approved building projects, which put South Portland in line to receive state funding.

The two middle schools are the oldest schools in the city and are also the ones that have had the least investment in improvements.

In 2009, voters approved a $5.8 million bond for a variety of upgrades. But any further action took a back seat to the $47.3 million renovation of South Portland High School, which took two years to complete.

Mahoney is in the heart of downtown, at 240 Ocean St., and was built in 1922. It has approximately 300 students and is about 92,000 square feet. Memorial, at 120 Wescott Road, was built in 1967 and has about 400 students in approximately 94,000 square feet, according to the School Department.

Kunin said this week that “conceptually, a combined middle school could fit at the Memorial site,” which he said is about 16 acres. He added that such a consolidated school would likely require between six and seven acres to accommodate a new building and the associated parking.

At one time, city and school leaders floated a plan to consolidate all the middle school students at Memorial, which would allow Mahoney to be used as a new City Hall.

The last time a consolidation plan for the two middle schools was seriously considered was in 2010, under former Superintendent Suzanne Godin. She argued that the School Department could save significant operating costs with only one middle school.

When Kunin was hired last year, he said one of his primary goals would be to resolve the middle school issue.

And while being put on the list for state funding is a giant leap forward in meeting that goal, Kunin said this summer that it could be another five to six years before a new or renovated middle school would be ready.

One of the first and most crucial steps in the planning process, Johanning said this week, would be determining what he called the “educational specifications,” or as Kunin put it, “the interrelationship between our program and space needs.”

This is one of the steps where the Department of Education requires public input. To that end, the School Department is holding a community forum on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the high school, to hear residents’ ideas for a new or improved middle school.

To help determine what programming space might be needed, the Middle School Facilities Committee has toured both the relatively new Westbrook Middle School – a state-funded, $34 million, 135,000-square-foot project – and the $39 million, 170,000-square-foot, locally funded Wentworth School in Scarborough, which houses students in grades 3-5.

Kunin also said this week that one of the things the School Department is considering is reconfiguring the grade divisions at the city schools, which could mean the new middle school would house students in grades 5 through 8, leaving space in the five elementary schools for creation of a new pre-kindergarten program.

In his initial analysis of what it would take to bring Mahoney up to current standards, Johanning said there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, including a new gymnasium and administrative wing.

He said the state also now requires all schools to have separate bus and parent drop-off loops, as well as to provide a significant amount of parking. In the case of Mahoney, Johanning added, the Department of Education is calling for a single primary access point off Highland Avenue, which would cause a complete reorientation of the building.

Johanning said other issues at Mahoney include adding insulation to the interior walls and significant work on the roof. He also said there are setback issues with the school, which is at the corner of Broadway and Ocean Street.

Showing a rough site plan with building additions at Mahoney, Johanning noted “there would be very little green space left,” which several members of the school board said they didn’t like at all.

But, Kunin reminded the board, “we have to provide a fair and clear analysis” of all the options, which includes the likelihood of searching the city for possible sites for a new Mahoney or a new combined middle school, even though the city already owns the Memorial site.

Kunin also said that if it’s ultimately determined to build a consolidated middle school on a new site, the School Department would have to give the Mahoney and Memorial properties to the city, which could either sell them or keep them for municipal purposes.

In outlining the lengthy process that South Portland must go through to receive state funding for a middle-school project, Johanning said there’s a possibility residents would also be asked to vote in two straw polls, one to approve a new school building site, if necessary, and one to approve a concept building design.

Then, if the Department of Education gives the OK, a final local referendum would have to be held.

Overall, Kunin kept reminding board members Monday, “this is a state process.”

The South Portland School Department has launched a lengthy process to get approval for state funding for either a renovated or new Mahoney Middle School, or a new, consolidated middle school.

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