An ambitious elementary school renovation project approved by voters three years ago continues to be hobbled by funding challenges.
Officials are working to understand how plans to renovate Longfellow, Presumpscot, and Reiche elementary schools will be affected by the recently passed Green New Deal for Portland.
They said new requirements resulting from the successful Nov. 3 ballot initiative could add up to $6 million to the total cost.
The Green New Deal will change the city’s green building codes, force contractors to hire a certain percentage of workforce employees as apprentices and pay higher wages, and require construction to align with the 2019 Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code. (The building projects were drafted using the 2010 code, which was updated last year.)
Voters approved a $64 million bond in November 2017 for the expansive renovation of the three schools, as well as Lyseth Elementary School, where construction began in June 2019. Work on the remaining three schools was scheduled to go out to bid this month after the scope of the projects was reduced earlier this year because of higher-than-expected costs.
Project architects Harriman & Associates of Auburn was initially planning a “staggered schedule of bids,” where one school project would go out to bid in December, the next would go out in January, and bids for the third would be sought in February.
But the process has now been temporarily paused while the architects work with the city’s Planning Department and the School Department’s legal counsel to interpret the impact of the new construction rules, which take effect Dec. 3.
Harriman initially estimated the energy efficiency upgrades required by the Green New Deal would require an additional $2 million to be spent on the Longfellow project, $1.5 million more to be spent at Presumpscot, and $2.5 million in additional funding for the Reiche renovations.
However, at last week’s monthly meeting of the District Building Advisory Committee, Harriman CEO Mark Lee said some of the new project standards under the Green New Deal may not apply to Reiche, unlike Longfellow and Presumpscot.
One of the updated building code stipulations, for instance, compares the market value of the building to the expense of its proposed renovations. If the value of the new construction falls under the market value of the property, the new code does not apply. Lee said while officials do not have a final opinion on the matter, they believe the market value of Reiche exceeds the value of its new construction.
That information is significant, he said, because if true it would mean “the conversation about this doesn’t apply to Reiche.”
At Longfellow and Presumpscot, he added, the market value is not greater than the construction costs, meaning the new rules apply.
Additionally, the Green New Deal requirements only apply to project construction with a scope of 5,000 square feet or more. Lee has said it is unclear whether that means 5,000 square feet of new construction, or the total building size. Because Reiche’s new construction would be less than 5,000 square feet, the Green New Deal may not apply to it at all.
If a final determination is made that the Green New Deal and the updated building code do not apply to Reiche, Lee said there will be “no change in the cost” of that project.
If Reiche is not included, he said, two possible scenarios remain: the requirements apply to all areas of Longfellow and Presumpscot, or they only apply to the new construction at both.
Lee said no decision was made regarding whether to move forward with the Reiche project separately. Officials are waiting to see how Longfellow and Presumpscot are affected, and how the costs there could affect the scope of the Reiche project.
At Longfellow and Presumpscot, the new requirements stipulate 15 percent of their roof space be set aside as solar-ready or prepared for a vegetative roof. Additional funding will be needed to add insulation to the schools’ exterior walls and roofs, as well as for air sealing and installing new mechanical systems.
The projects have been submitted to the Planning Board, but will likely not be approved and ready for a building permit in advance of the Green New Deal taking effect.
Depending on the impact of the new stipulations at Longfellow and Presumpscot, Lisa Sawin, an architect with Harriman, last week said one of the steps in the process may be redesigning the projects.
After determining the impact of the requirements on the scope of each school, Harriman officials will return to the DBAC and discuss options, which could include delaying the work at all three schools for six months or delaying one school for six months and the remaining two for longer.
Sawin called the review of the plans “a fluid process.”
“We have all the balls going at the same time to make sure that we can react as quickly as possible,” she said.
The next meeting of the DBAC is scheduled for Dec. 17.
Superintendent: In-person learning ‘increasingly challenging’ as COVID-19 cases grow
As virus cases continue to increase in Maine, Portland Public Schools are preparing in case classes must again go completely remote.
The schools are also preparing for coronavirus relief funding to end as scheduled on Dec. 31, which is projected to leave a $5 million funding gap to continue classes in their current hybrid format.
Materials presented to the School Department Finance Committee Nov. 19 suggest the largest cost the district will have to cover without state funding is nearly $3 million for staffing.
Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana told the School Board last week it will discuss a proposal on how to move forward in a Dec. 8 workshop and take action on a final budget recommendation on Dec. 22.
And, although Cumberland County remains “green” under the state’s COVID-19 rating system, Botana said Portland has had a “steady stream” of positive cases in schools and there is concern community spread will make it “increasingly challenging to hold in-person instruction for the long haul.”
He said Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli is working with school principals to make preparations in case schools must transition back to all-remote learning.
Currently, he added, students in kindergarten through fifth grade do not all have school-issued laptop computers, which will be essential to make the shift. A shipment of computers that was scheduled to arrive Nov. 1 remains delayed.
Botana echoed the words of Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who recently said that in order to keep students in school, everyone needs to do their part to stop community spread.
Only one case of COVID-19 in Portland Public Schools, of the more than 20 virus cases they have had, Botana said, has been the result of in-school transmission.
“We’ve worked too long and too hard as a state, community, and school district to lose the ability to provide in-person learning, limited as it may be,” he said.
— Elizabeth Clemente