Thursday, November 3, 2005

S.P. floats $70-plus-million school building plans

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (Nov 3, 2005): The South Portland school department has begun seeking public comment on plans that could cost taxpayers between $70 million and $85.2 million to renovate and rebuild the city’s middle and high schools.

“The systems in our facilities are either at the end of their life cycle or past it in a couple of cases,” said Superintendent Wendy Houlihan.

There are two options, both of which would include a $38 million to $39.7 million renovation at South Portland High School, part of which is 50 years old and part of which is somewhat newer, Houlihan said. Though its enrollment is 1,100 – below its peak around 1,300 some years ago – changing needs for English as a second language and special education classes have upped demands so that “we’re just out of room, even though the population isn’t as big,” Houlihan said.

Both options would also include tearing down the existing Memorial Middle School, which is 40 years old.

One option would have the district paying $32 million to $35 million to rebuild a single middle school for 800 students on the Memorial site. In that case, the 80-year-old Mahoney Middle School would be closed.

The other option would involve building a $21 million to $22.5 million middle school for 400 students on the Memorial site and renovating Mahoney to hold 400 students, at a projected cost of $21.5 million to $23 million.

District officials are trying to determine whether the city would be eligible for state aid for the project, though that could delay work for several years. If the city were not eligible or decided not to seek state funding, the question would go to voters in 2006, construction could begin in 2007 and the work could be done by 2011.

The city just finished an $18 million project renovating and rebuilding four elementary schools, for which state aid was not available, though the city did get an interest-free loan of $442,000 from the state.

The elementary project was originally slated to cost $28 million – a number approved by voters – for five schools. Houlihan said the city saved only $4 million or $5 million by closing the Marsh School rather than renovating it, meaning that the entire project finished well below the projected cost.

“We have new schools, lovely schools, for our elementary schools,” Houlihan said, but said they are good value for the taxpayers. “They are not Taj Mahals; there is nothing exotic” about them.

She did not know whether the cost estimates for the middle and high schools – based on work by Harriman Associates – would be higher than the real costs. “It’s so hard to predict,” she said, especially if the project is delayed a couple years in the wait for state funding.

The district is working with Harriman Associates, an architecture firm that designed Scarborough High School’s $27 million renovation, and is working with Scarborough on a $54 million proposal for middle and intermediate schools.

Upcoming meetings on the subject will be held on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6:30 p.m. at the Frank I. Brown School at 37 Highland Ave.; and on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 6 p.m. at the Helena H. Dyer School at 52 Alfred St.