A rendering depicts a natural light-filled lobby at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland. Courtesy Harriman

PORTLAND — Given the current construction market, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said it’s imperative that “(we) more efficiently and cost-effectively deliver” on three remaining elementary school construction projects.

His comment came at an Aug. 6 meeting where the School Board unanimously approved hiring one firm to design and solicit bids for all of the upgrades planned at Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche schools under a $64 million bond approved by voters in November 2017.

The decision avoids payment of separate professional services fees on each project.

At that same meeting, Botana also addressed concerns about the significant enrollment shift from Deering High School to Portland High School for the incoming freshman class. Overall, he told the board, Deering “provides an outstanding education year after year.”

School construction plans

After receiving responses this summer from four architectural firms, Steven Stilphen, the School Department’s facilities director, recommended hiring Harriman, a Portland-based architecture, engineering and planning firm, to produce all the preliminary design work for the three schools still in the pipeline.

Work at Lyseth Elementary, the fourth school included in the bond, is underway, with total construction anticipated to take about 24 months. Harriman also designed the Lyseth project, which last spring came in $2.8 million over the initial $11.7 set aside for the project.

Even so, the School Board moved ahead on construction after requiring a $750,000 reduction in spending and approving the use of reserve funds to cover the rest of the overrun. The Lyseth project includes a new gym, new administrative offices and new spaces for music and art, along with other improvements, particularly in building security.

Botana previously told the School Board his hope was to manage the remaining elementary school renovation projects in such a way as to ensure the cost of the work doesn’t exceed the total bond amount, while also not shortchanging the other three schools.

The goal of hiring one firm to do all the pre-construction work, he said then, was to both expedite the remaining projects while also enticing more bidders with work guaranteed over a period of several years.

In a memo to Botana, Stilphen said one reason he recommended the School Department hire Harriman is due to the firm’s “extensive experience” in handling multiple school projects for the same district over a period of years and because it offered the “clearest objectives and synergy.”

School Board member Emily Figdor, who was a proponent of the four-school construction bond prior to being elected, said Aug. 6 she was pleased to see Harriman selected.

“Harriman has a vision to really transform our schools for the limited money we have available,” she said. “Even though the Lyseth budget was constrained, it’s still an exciting project and I’m really optimistic about what (hiring Harriman) means for the three remaining schools.”

Enrollment shift

Following a story in the Portland Press Herald highlighting the fact that more freshmen were choosing to attend Portland High over Deering mainly because of security concerns, Botana both wrote a letter to the community and spoke out at the Aug. 6 School Board meeting.

He said that while the initial story was accurate in terms of the enrollment figures, it failed to note that both high schools “offer a learning experience that’s second to none” and that Deering, in particular, has been recognized with national awards for expanding its Advanced Placement offerings and having the largest number of students dual-enrolled at local colleges.

Botana acknowledged that there were a number of issues that caused the enrollment shift, but said it’s a priority for him to “put the structures in place to prevent a recurrence.” For instance, he said there would be an increased focus on better communication with parents, in order to help dispel rumors, particularly about fights or other disciplinary concerns.

The Press Herald reported that the projected freshman enrollment for Deering this academic year is 127 students, while 272 freshmen are expected at Portland High School. That’s a change from recent years when freshman enrollment at Deering was about 220 students, while Portland typically enrolled around 180 or 190 freshmen.

At the Aug. 6 School Board meeting, Botana said Deering serves the most diverse student body in New England and research shows that students who attend a diverse school are more empathetic and creative and are more engaged in civic life.

In his letter, Botana said that while high school enrollment numbers fluctuate annually “the number of ninth graders choosing Deering this fall is markedly lower than usual.”

Because of that, he said, the School Department would put more focus on the high school selection process going forward, including having conversations about the reasons students select schools. Botana also said the department would “consider options to prevent another single year swing of this magnitude.”

“I want to assure you that our school system takes the enrollment drop at Deering very seriously,” the letter said. “We are working to understand the root causes and address them in this new school year. I am personally committed to working with the Deering leadership, staff, students, and community.”


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