SOUTH PORTLAND — In a straw vote Wednesday, city residents overwhelmingly approved a proposal to build a consolidated middle school on the site of the Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road.

The $50 million school would be funded by the state and replace both Memorial and Mahoney on Ocean Street, the city’s two aging middle schools that each house grades six through eight.

The vote was 151-49 in the auditorium at South Portland High School, where a question-and-answer period occasionally got heated when opponents questioned the site and selection process.

Next steps include a second straw vote in October on a site and building design plan, followed by a citywide referendum on the project as early as June 2019.

With that time line, school officials have said the state would put the project out to bond in 2020 and the school could be completed as early as 2022.

A planning committee’s recommendation to build a consolidated middle school for students in grades five through eight got a warm reception when it was announced at a public forum last November.

While some people have praised the consolidation plan as thoughtful, practical and fiscally responsible, others have complained about how the proposal was developed, that it would eliminate a middle school on the east side of the city and extend bus routes for some students.

In May, the committee recommended the Memorial site as the only viable option after thoroughly reviewing and pursuing all potential sites in the city.

Because large tracts of land are so scarce, the city recently funded a $47.3 million high school renovation and expansion because a suitable alternative site couldn’t be found.

In addition to accommodating many of the district’s improvement plans, the Memorial site is expected to be closer to the demographic center of South Portland given the city’s master development plan for the western neighborhoods.

Both Mahoney and Memorial have significant structural, health, safety and handicapped-access deficiencies, along with asbestos throughout and inadequate heating, ventilation, plumbing, electrical and communication systems.

State funding is available to renovate Mahoney (at least $26 million), build a new school for Mahoney students on a different site ($23 million) or build one school for all South Portland middle school students ($44 million for grades 6-8 or $50 million for grades 5-8).

The state wouldn’t fund construction of a new Memorial, which is estimated would cost city taxpayers $30 million, plus additional costs to address other building issues throughout the district.

A consolidated middle school would separate grades 5 and 6 from grades 7 and 8 into separate sections, addressing some parents’ concerns about fifth-graders social and academic readiness for middle school.

Building one larger middle school, including classrooms for fifth-graders, also would help address school deficiencies throughout the district, as required by the state, school officials said.

Despite renovations in the early 2000s, the city’s five elementary schools are so crowded, some instruction is provided in closets, hallways and alcoves, they said. Moving the fifth grades to a consolidated middle school would free up 17 to 19 elementary classrooms for other purposes.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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