Some city and school district leaders are worried that funding could run out to adequately complete the renovation of three Portland schools after additional costs increased to around $2 million more than originally anticipated.
Assuming the school district doles out all the money for additional construction costs that have popped up over the course of the year, it will have around $2.5 million left, out of a $64 million bond, to pay for school furnishings and any future unexpected construction costs between now and the projects’ scheduled end dates in January 2023 and December 2023.
Portland voters approved the bond to pay for the renovation of four elementary schools – Longfellow, Reiche, Presumpscot and Lyseth – in 2017. The Lyseth renovations went smoothly and the building reopened to students in October. But the road has been rockier for the other three schools.
Permits to begin construction on Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche took longer than expected leading to a variety of complications and costs, including managing construction through the winter months, funding overtime to speed up the work and paying more for construction materials, which have rapidly increased in price over the past few years.
In November, the Press Herald reported that the projects were facing an additional $1.4 million in costs, but that number has grown since then.
The school board voted in early April to pay for around $800,000 in cost overruns for two of the projects – Longfellow and Presumpscot – and is scheduled to vote Tuesday on allocating an extra $1 million for additional costs associated with the Reiche project and another $170,000 for Presumpscot.
The school district will likely use money from the fund for furniture, fixtures and equipment for the three schools to pay for the increases. That will leave the district with $1.2 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment, down from around $2.2 million.
At this time, officials do not plan to dip into the projects’ $1.3 million construction contingency fund. Portland Board of Education Chair Emily Figdor said it was important to keep that money available since there is still a significant amount of construction to be done, the buildings are old and there may be unanticipated problems.
City Councilor Mark Dion said in an April Building Advisory Committee meeting that he felt “really uncomfortable” about pulling money out of the furniture fund. “(Furniture, fixtures and equipment) are the meat and potatoes of a new school,” said Dion. “If we reduce that people are going to have questions.” Dion said he was worried the district wouldn’t be able to provide equipment that teachers expected or put enough chairs in classrooms.
But Figdor said they don’t have another choice.
“This is absolutely far less than ideal but we don’t have another option and we have to approve this money in order to enable the projects to move forward,” she said. “Then we live to fight another day in working to ensure we get all or as much of the [furniture, fixtures and equipment] that we need for the three schools.”
Figdor said the only other option would be to try to locate additional money for the projects, a proposition she said would open a “huge other can of worms.” Figdor did not say specifically where they might find additional funds.
Figdor said a slow permitting process by the city is the root cause of the additional costs. The city granted the school district a permit to renovate Lyseth one month after plans were submitted, but the process took significantly longer – around six months – for the other three projects. The district requested the building permits for Longfellow, Reiche and Presumpscot in the summer of 2021 and the city granted them in the winter.
The city said permits for complicated projects like school renovations often take months to approve and that there was nothing abnormal about the timeframe.
“I don’t believe any of this took any longer based on the city delaying them [the projects] in any way shape or form,” said Jessica Hanscombe, director of permitting and inspections for Portland.
Hanscombe said the renovations were all complicated projects especially because the schools have remained in use during construction. “We want to make sure everyone is safe,” she said.
Throughout the permitting process, there were disagreements between the city and the school district and their architecture firm, Harriman, about whether the plans submitted complied with all the necessary municipal and state codes. The school district and Harriman consistently said they submitted code-compliant plans, while the city said they did not.
The way building codes apply to certain projects is not always black and white, and can often be open to interpretation, according to Mark Lee, the Harriman architect in charge of the school renovations.
“Our posture the entire time was to be collaborative and work with the city and quickly get them the information they needed,” he said.
Although the parties ultimately found a plan they could agree on, the school district is now stuck footing a larger bill than it expected and school and city officials involved in the renovations said they are worried about running out of money. And even if they don’t, district leaders said they are frustrated they have to pour funding into additional construction costs rather than using it directly for students.
If everything from here on out goes according to plan, the projects will be completed between four and five months behind schedule, with Presumpscot completed by January 2023 and Longfellow and Reiche around a year later in December 2023.
Note: This story was updated Monday, May 2 to correct Jessica Hanscombe’s job title.