South Portland’s Memorial Middle School, pictured here, and Mahoney School will be combined into a new middle school where Memorial is now located. Sean Murphy / For The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — South Portland’s combined middle school project is scheduled to finally break ground later this spring after more than five years in the making.

School Superintendent Ken Kunin said this week that officials expect to get final bids on the $69 million project next month. Construction at the site of the current Memorial Middle School is expected to begin in May or early June.

All but $10 million of the project will be paid by the state, making it the largest state-funded project of its kind in the city’s history, Kunin said.

Kunin said the city has been looking for new middle school options since 2010, when the district applied to the state Department of Education’s Capital School Construction Programs for funding to renovate or replace Mahoney Middle School. At the time, Kunin said, the school had “a number of problems” including a lack of access for people with disabilities and the lack of enclosed stairwells.

The state agreed to fund the work in August 2016, and, after an analysis, agreed to fund a joint middle school project that included replacing Memorial.

“It was coming to the end of its useful life,” Kunin said.

Voters approved the project at a referendum in November 2019, with 77% in favor. School Board Chairperson Richard Matthews said he expected it to pass, but not by that much.

“I think everybody knew it was the right thing to do,” he said this week.

The new middle school will combine Memorial Middle School on Wescott Road and Mahoney Middle School on Ocean Street. Kunin said about 700 students attend classes in both buildings, and the new school will also accommodate about 200 fifth-graders who now attend school at the city’s five elementary schools.

“At this time we do not anticipate a reduction in positions as we will have the same number of students to educate and a large building to maintain,” Kunin said. “There certainly may be some shifting, but that will be decided closer to the opening in 2023.”

He said to be eligible for the state funding, the new school will have a capacity of 900, and can add at least 10% capacity in years to come.
“It has some room to expand if it has to,” he said.

Matthews recalled the biggest sticking point for the project was the location. Officials struggled to find a site that was halfway between both building, but negotiations with owners of various properties ultimately fell through, leaving the district to settle on the site of Memorial School.

“It was the only available spot that we had,” he said. “Everybody else turned us down.”

Kunin said the new school will be located behind the current building, where the fields are now. Eventually, he said, the old building will be demolished to accommodate parking and a bus loop for the new school, but it will remain open for most of the construction. Kunin said the project will take about 27 months to complete. The district plans to move out of Memorial in June 2023, and start the 2023-2024 school year in the new school.

“It’s aggressive but doable,” he said, noting that most school projects take from 24-30 months to complete.

The new school, Kunin said, will be environmentally-friendly, with geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels on the roof. Kunin said the construction firm hasn’t been decided yet, but the state Department of Education pre-qualified 10 different companies, all of which have a positive track record for building schools.

“We’re thrilled with the list,” he said.

The combined new middle school also means the eventual closing of Mahoney School. Matthews said that will be bittersweet for some, including him. He said he can see the school’s fields from his house and will miss being able to see the school bands practicing. Built in 1928 as the city’s high school, it changed to a middle school in 1962 when the city built a new high school.

“It was my mother’s high school,” Matthews said.

His kids also attended Mahoney School, but Matthews also noted that both middle schools have a host of problems ranging from poor internet service to heating and water issues.

The ultimate fate of the Mahoney School building is unclear. Deputy City Manager Joshua Reny said the building will remain city property until a study and assessment can be done to see whether the building will be of use to the municipality.

Reny said he wasn’t sure when that study would be done, and could not say what the city’s options would be if the building could not be repurposed.

“It’s too early to speculate exactly how that would play out,” he said.

Comments are not available on this story.