An architect’s rendering of the concept design for the proposed new South Portland middle school. The cost of the project is now $71.5 million. WBRC Architects-Engineers

SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Tuesday suggested separating borrowing for construction of a new middle school into two, smaller proposals to increase the likelihood of passage.

Including recently added traffic improvements, the proposed cost of the project now totals $71.5 million, which includes $59.2 million in state funding.

If split into two bond questions on the Nov. 5 ballot, one would seek $69.3 million for the middle school – although only $10 million would have be raised locally – while the second would ask for another $2.3 million in local funding for related transportation and pedestrian improvements.

From a practical perspective, Mayor Claude Morgan said, it makes more sense to split the borrowing into two separate items rather than risk voter rejection of the entire project.

A first reading on the bond referendums for the middle school and traffic projects will be held Aug. 12, with a second and final reading set for Aug. 27.

First floor building concept design plans for the proposed South Portland middle school. Contributed

The building would replace the city’s two middle schools, Mahoney and Memorial, and be built on the site of Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road.

The cost estimate for local funding, up $1.8 million from the original proposal, includes a building project not covered by the state, along with improvements related to the off-site school transportation building.

The $2.3 million in additional funding would be earmarked for three projects: $1.4 million for a Westbrook Street multi-use path from Westcott Street to Redbank, 625,000 for Broadway corridor pedestrian improvements, and $200,000 for dynamic traffic signals.

While school officials have made an effort to mitigate traffic concerns by proposing 45-minute staggered start times, with grades 7 and 8 starting earlier and finishing earlier than their younger classmates, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said further improvements are necessary.

The city worked with Sebago Technics to create the proposals for pedestrians access to the Memorial Middle School site after hearing from concerned residents.

Residents first approved the location of the school by a 151-49 vote a year ago. They approved the concept design for the million middle school in a 95-2 straw poll vote June 2, which qualified the project for state funding. 

On July 10, the State Board of Education unanimously approved the concept. If the bonding is approved Nov. 5, the timeline approved by the state says final design documents will be completed by April 2020 and the project will go out to bid in December 2020.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said final funding will require approval from the commissioner of the Department of Education in the fall of 2021. Project completion is projected for September 2023.

Kunin noted in a project concept summary that both existing middle schools have health and safety issues, as well as asbestos problems, inadequate ventilation and electrical problems. 

City Finance Director Greg L’Heureaux said the bond debt service is estimated at $14.3 million, to be paid over 20 years, and could add at least 6 cents to the property tax rate.

But he noted there are variables that may change the expenses in the future, including street improvements and other school construction expenses.

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