2016-06-24 / Community News

School facilities: Upgrade instead of build

Long-range plan adjusted after detailed enrollment projection study is completed
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

A year ago the school district was looking at shutting down one of the primary schools in order to better utilize facilities and save on operating costs. That decision was changed, however, earlier this year when it was determined that investing in the three schools was a better option for the district’s long-range facility plan.

“Almost all of the options involved construction, some involved substantial construction. It was clear once there were discussions with the community this was probably not a good time to go out to bond for another school construction project,” Dan Cecil, principal architect with Harriman, told board members last week during a progress update on the long-term facility plan efforts. Harriman – the architecture and engineering firm that designed Wentworth School – was hired by the school district in November 2013 to conduct a facilities assessment and long-term facilities plan that the district could use for the next five to 10 years.

Cecil said after receiving enrollment projections from Planning Decisions, a research firm that looked at housing stock and birth rate potential rather than just basing enrollment projections on live births, it was a wise decision to not consolidate primary schools.

Originally it looked like the school system, which has 3,017 students right now, would have slightly more than 2,700 by 2021, but Planning Decisions’ latest projections increase the number to just more than 2,900. Cecil said the enrollment projections now call for 3,121 students by 2025-2026, a “very modest increase.” Cecil said the district’s schools have a capacity for 3,525 students.

The anomaly, he said, is at the primary schools, where the student population – 596 as of April – is expected to decline over the next two years, but rebound and increase by 25 percent to 746 students by 2025. The population at Wentworth School is expected to increase by 104 students, going from 651 in April 2016 to 755 in 2025. The middle school is expected to decrease by 18 students. The high school is expected to see the biggest reduction, going from 1,016 today to 884 in the fall of 2025.

Cecil said as part of the facilities inventory his firm conducted, every single teaching space in the district was measured and inventoried and the cost of maintaining each of the schools was analyzed.

The primary schools, he said, proved to be the most costly to operate, in part due to a lack of insulation and poor energy efficiency in parts of the school.

“Like in many parts of Maine, you have old buildings that aren’t well insulated and could be better insulated,” he said.

The schools, he added, are also in need of mechanical upgrades.

“They have served you very well, but they are showing their age at this point,” Cecil said.

While the recommendation for now is to keep the three primary schools open, another option is closing Pleasant Hill Primary School, the district’s smallest primary school, shifting the second-graders to Wentworth School and distributing Pleasant Hill kindergarteners and first-graders to Eight Corners and Blue Point schools. Other options brought up, such as constructing a new primary school or expanding existing schools, were shot down.

Closing Pleasant Hill and reassigning students to the other primary schools would avoid construction, and Wentworth School would be able to accommodate the second-graders, but Cecil said it could be problematic in that it would create an issue regarding what to do with Pleasant Hill. One option would be to give it to the town like has been done with other former school buildings or use it as a pre-kindergarten center. Nevertheless, Cecil recommends the school district hold on to the school if it were eventually closed.

“Not doing anything now positions yourself well for what may happen in the future,” he said.

Wentworth School was built to accommodate 800 students, but only 651 are using it now. Board member Kelly Murphy said while Wentworth School has room to accommodate an additional grade, it would not be easy because much of the space that is not being used as classrooms now is used by community service or as gathering space. “Every nook and cranny we would have to repurpose as classroom space,” she said.

The middle school, Cecil said, also has some energy efficiency issues that drives the maintenance costs up, but the biggest issue is overcrowding. Cecil said many spaces in the school, including the cafeteria, gymnasium and library, are undersized based on Department of Education standards. He said the design of the building, its narrow hallways and undersized spaces is “making it difficult to serve the students there now.” Additionally there is inadequate parking and there were five “floating” teachers at the school in 2015 who didn’t have a permanent classroom space.

For many years the school, which was opened in 1996, has relied on unattached modular classrooms. Sixth graders in the Passamaquoddy modular have to leave that space and walk down a sidewalk to gain access to the main school building, which poses a safety risk.

“It’s working, but in a perfect world you want to take that building and connect it,” Cecil said.

Board member Kate Miles said while the square footage of the school could accommodate more students, there is no way, in her opinion, that more students could be served by the school.

“To me it seems it is beyond, beyond capacity,” she said, adding there is no space in the school large enough for the entire student body to meet. For large events, such as assemblies, students and staff have to go to the nearby Wentworth School.

Several options to update and improve the middle school was suggested – including building a new classroom wing and enlarging some spaces or moving sixth-graders to Wentworth, but neither were recommended for further consideration.

Cecil said the operation costs of the high school, which was last renovated a decade ago, are reasonable and it “continues to function well.” This summer Harriman will collect operations and maintenance costs of Wentworth School, which opened in 2014, to ensure it’s operating as envisioned.

If work is done at the schools, there are several places where the town could get money for the work outside of the annual budget. One option could be the Department of Education’s revolving renovation account, which, according to the department, uses a mixture of grants and interest free loans to help schools fund “health, safety and compliance issues including roof structural upgrades; improvements to air quality; compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act and hazardous material abatement or removal.”

Todd Jepson, the district’s director of facilities, grounds and maintenance, said most of the hazardous materials have already been removed from the schools, especially after the demolition of the old Wentworth Intermediate School, which was rife with mold and asbestos.

Cecil said the fund could help the primary schools, which are plagued with air quality and ADA compliance issues and a light roof.

Another funding option may be Efficiency Maine, which awards schools grants for energy efficiency or lighting upgrades. According to the executive summary of the report the fund “is largely depleted due to extreme demand.”

Although both funding sources are in high demand, Cecil said there is no harm applying.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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