As the group of city leaders considering how to fund renovations to four of Portland’s aging elementary schools neared the end of their tour of Presumpscot Elementary Wednesday night, City Councilor David Brenerman put a question to school principal Cynthia Loring: If you could only fix three things in the school, what would they be?
The question is indicative of the problem Portland has grappled with for more than two decades: How to cover the cost of a raft of renovations in schools that have not seen major work done in more than 50 years. In June, the Portland Board of Education proposed borrowing $70 million on the bond market to fund renovations, but wary of the tax hikes it would take to pay that back, the city council decided to create a committee to study the issue instead of passing it along to voters.
But asked to pick just a few things to fix, the school principal refused without even a break in her educators pep.
“For me to name just three things would be professional malpractice on my part,” said Loring.
Here is a summary of a few of the issues that school staff highlighted at Presumpscot and Lyseth elementary schools.
Both schools hold classes in double-wide trailers that were meant to be temporary accommodations but have turned into long term fixtures to deal with limited classroom space.
“Typically a temporary building will be used by a school for five years, but the one out here is from 1988,” Portland Public Schools Facilities Director Doug Sherwood said of the trailers at Lyseth, which school employees refer to as “the cottages.”
In both schools, a single room is used as both a gym and cafeteria, which means that between roughly 11:30 am and 1:30 pm, the spaces can’t be used for physical education classes. The schools’ principals said that arranging class schedules around this is challenging and it only gets harder in the winter when gym class can’t happen outside.
“We’re really hamstrung by that,” Lyseth principal Lenore Williams said of the shared spaces.
Both schools lack spaces for small group instruction, which means that individual students often receive lessons at desks in the hallway — which the Portland Fire Department will intermittently take issue with if there are too many, according to Williams.
In fact, space is at such a premium that closets and foyers are converted into offices and classrooms. For instance, at Lyseth, a large foyer that was originally intended as an emergency exit is used as a literacy support classroom.
At Presumpscot, an employee of the education non-profit Learning Works has an office in a space that is also a supply and electrical closet that accesses the roof.