Portland parents are pressuring city officials to promise that an ongoing review of school buildings won’t lead to the closure of any of the four elementary schools scheduled for renovation under a new city bond.

More than 100 parents packed an annual District 4 meeting held Monday night at Presumpscot Elementary School, presenting District 4 Councilor Justin Costa with 642 signatures on a petition asking City Council and school board members to protect the four schools.

“Just honor the will of the voters. It doesn’t make sense that we are even having this conversation,” said Crystal Gamet, a mother of three who volunteers at Presumpscot and has a second-grader and fourth-grader there.

Parents are worried that the school board, in the search for cost savings, would consider closing Presumpscot depending on the findings of the facilities review, which was launched in the wake of two bruising school budgets.

But Costa, who previously served on the school board, said their fears are misplaced.

“I think it’s not imminent or even likely at all,” said Costa, who signed the group’s petition in a show of support for their concerns. “I’ve not heard anyone express interest in closing an elementary school.

“People need to understand that (this kind of analysis) is done on a fairly regular basis,” Costa said. “I’ve been through this for 10 years and I’ve never seen anything that has led me to think there are serious cost savings from shutting down an elementary school.”

However, several Portland elementary schools have closed in recent years and students shifted to new schools such as East End Community School and Ocean Avenue Elementary School. In 2008, Presumpscot was identified as the next elementary school to be closed under a comprehensive plan for elementary schools adopted in 2002 after eight years of study. That plan anticipated Lyseth being replaced or renovated and Longfellow being renovated.

More than 100 people who attended Monday’s annual District 4 meeting presented City Councilor Justin Costa with 642 signatures on a petition asking city and school officials to not close elementary schools that are supposed to be renovated under a voter-approved bond. Photo by John Thibodeau

PRE-K EXPANSION IN THE MIX

The debate over elementary schools stretches back even further: The school district closed Presumpscot School in the late 1970s, only to reopen it four years later.

In 2016, as the campaign to renovate the elementary schools got underway, supporters of the school renovation bond regularly discussed the concern that accepting state funding would result in the decision to replace instead of renovate the schools.

Presumpscot serves 231 students, and the demographics consultant, Davis Demographics, has reported that the school is operating at 79 percent of capacity – with 85 percent being the ideal. However, the school plans to add another pre-K class, and one purpose of the current facilities review is to do a districtwide analysis of each school with projections that take multiple factors into account, including birth rate, housing trends and anticipated need for school programs such as pre-K and special education.

Davis Demographics said that its initial analysis, presented to the facilities review committee in late November, found that if pre-K is expanded, the district would need to either relocate some programs, redistrict or build additional space in the elementary schools because there are only five classrooms currently available districtwide for additional pre-K.

FACILITIES REVIEW OUTCOMES

The facilities review was launched in response to several challenging school budget cycles, and the expectation that state funding will continue to decrease.

The review, intended to collect definitive information on demographics, capacity and facility usage, is meant to help the school board, and ultimately the City Council, have a full picture of the district when it discusses finances. It could, officials say, result in school closures, redistricting, program consolidation or other cost-saving measures.

The board has hired an outside consultant and formed a commission to oversee the work, and a report of their findings – which is non-binding and meant to inform the budget discussion – is expected to be delivered to the school board by February, just as the annual school budgeting season gets underway.

Last November, Portland voters approved $64.3 million in bonds to renovate Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools. Although that process is moving forward – Lyseth is scheduled to go first with a $15.7 million renovation – there is no legal barrier preventing the commission or board from considering a change to that plan as part of this process.

The petitions circulated by concerned parents note that the bond measure passed, and say: “We, Portland residents, call upon our school board members & city councilors to pledge to carry out the will of the voters, and renovate all 4 schools.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine