May 29, 2024

The Portland school district is proposing a plan for a new state-funded high school that could bring together its two largest schools, Portland High and Deering High, and integrate them in one facility with career and technical and adult education.

Planning for the proposal is still in the very early stages, but the district has submitted a request to the state to waive the application deadline and related requirements in order to be considered for state funding on a list of projects that integrate high schools with career and technical education.

“If we were successful, it would open up our ability to look at our current high schools and say, ‘We would like to consider consolidating our two comprehensive high schools along with our career and technical education program and, in our case, we would also like to look at having Portland adult education be a part of that so it could truly become a one-stop place for secondary and post-secondary education in Portland,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said.

The Maine State Board of Education’s construction committee will take up the district’s request on Jan. 28 and decide whether to advance it to the full board. If the state is supportive, Botana said, the district will start a community conversation and come up with a formal proposal.

Right now, he said, the district hasn’t settled on key details, such as where such a school would be located or whether Casco Bay High School would be considered for inclusion, though it’s likely Casco Bay would remain independent.

“This is something this community has been talking about,” he said. “I’ve described it as a low rumble of, ‘We should consolidate. We should consolidate.’ I would like to bring this to a public conversation about, ‘Here’s an opportunity for us to look at having a state-of-the-art high school facility in Portland that is not paid for by Portland taxpayers but that allows us to create a 21st-century learning experience for all our students.”

Both Portland High School and the district’s career and technical center, Portland Arts & Technology High School, or PATHS, are currently on the state’s list of major capital school construction priority projects.

Portland is ranked 15th on the list while PATHS is ranked 25th. Only five of 74 schools on the priority list, which dates to 2018, have been approved for state-funded construction – and Botana said it’s unlikely either Portland High or PATHS would be approved anytime soon.

He said the district is now requesting to move those projects from the major school construction list to a different list called the Integrated, Consolidated 9-16 Educational Facility Final Priority List. That much shorter list currently includes just seven priority projects total and just three approved projects, two of which are no longer being pursued.

The list was created in 2017 after the Maine Department of Education released an application for innovative regional high school projects that would collaborate with the state’s higher education institutions and expand programming and services.

However, Kelli Deveaux, a spokesperson for the department, said the state has yet to build such a school. She said a project that had been approved for the St. John Valley was withdrawn and another project in the greater Houlton area no longer qualified because too many districts that would have participated withdrew.

One approved project, involving school districts in Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties, and the Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, remains active, Deveaux said.

Projects on the list require the consolidation of more than a single facility; the integration of career and technical education; and a robust postsecondary component. Botana told the school board last week that the district would have to meet those requirements, and he believes it is well situated to do so.

“By bringing together, in one site, our outstanding career and technical programming, our rigorous comprehensive high schools, and adult education programming, we have the makings of a model 21st-century community secondary and postsecondary school,” he said.

Traditionally, the proposals the state has gotten for this program have come from rural communities – which is why, Botana said Tuesday, the program wasn’t on the district’s radar until recently. He said he recognizes that any sort of consolidation proposal can be complicated.

“It’s challenging to get people to agree to consolidate their schools,” he said. “We think it will be challenging for us as well, but we would like the opportunity to be able to do that.”

At the same time, Botana said, the state program is a unique opportunity to improve facilities in a district in which consolidation has been talked about for several years. Enrollment in Portland, as in other districts around Maine, has been declining. From the 2011-12 school year to the 2020-21 school year, the number of public school students in the city dropped from 6,926 to 6,492, according to Maine Department of Education data.

In 2018-2019, an enrollment and facilities commission found that both Deering and Portland high schools were underutilized, but it wasn’t viable to bring the two schools together on either of the current campuses.

“If we were to use either one of those facilities (for a consolidated school), you’re still looking at $30 million in repairs that are overdue or repairs that can be anticipated within the next 15 years,” Botana said. “That’s using a cost model that was built back in 2017, and we know costs have escalated since then. … It would still be $50 million over the next 15 years to keep that building at functioning levels. And that’s current functioning levels, not a 21st-century learning experience level.”

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Portland floats plan to combine its high schools