Friday, March 12, 2021

State greenlights Windham Middle School construction project

RSU 14 has learned that the state has moved ahead with
funding for construction of a project to either rebuild or
renovate Windham Middle School by 2026.
By Ed Pierce

The next five years will probably have some unexpected twists and turns, but what is known for certain is that by 2026, Windham Middle School will either be renovated or rebuilt, according to RSU 14 administrators.

After several years of being ranked at Number 5 overall among state-approved and subsidized construction projects, RSU 14 has learned that the highly anticipated project is moving forward. How much state funding for the work is yet unknown and that will be the determining factor on whether the aging 44-year-old school will be rebuilt or renovated.       

RSU 14 received some wonderful news this month about the Windham Middle School construction project. After two years of waiting, the Maine Department of Education announced that the project to replace the school will be moving forward,” said RSU 14 Schools Superintendent Christopher Howell. “The district took the first significant step of the process last week when it officially advertised for architectural services for the project.”

During the RSU 14 School Board meeting on Wednesday evening, the district formed a School Building Committee to oversee the project, which is expected to be completed by 2026.

Howell said that the original Windham Middle School was completed in 1977 and was built for a capacity of 483 students.  That number has now grown to 636 students, with sixth graders housed for some classes at the adjacent Field Allen School, which was built in the 1930s.

“Over the years, the Field Allen School has had several minor renovations and has been incorporated into the programming of the school.  Most recently, two new classrooms were added to the building to accommodate a large sixth-grade class,” Howell said. “The building has served the district well over the years but is starting to show signs that it is reaching the end of its usable life cycle as a school building.  Aside from the inability to have all students in the building under one roof, the main middle school building has small classrooms, outdated science rooms, restroom facilities that do not meet modern requirements, a worn-out heating system, outdated windows, and a less than adequate electrical system.”   

More than 200 students currently transition back and forth from Field Allen School to Windham Middle School for classes in art, music, science, STEM, gym and other activities including the school cafeteria.

RSU 14 originally applied for the Maine Department of Education’s Major Capital Construction Program in 2016 for funding for construction and has ranked as the being fifth-highest priority among 74 proposed school construction projects statewide.

“The program is highly competitive as a positive rating in the process can lead to a significant financial savings for school districts,” Howell said. “A majority of construction costs for school projects selected through this program will be covered by the state.”

Once a district applies for funding, Maine DOE reviews and rates the project based upon need. The State Board of Education then funds as many projects from the list as available debt limit funds allow. Working with the State Board of Education, Maine DOE establishes both size and financial limits on projects.

Local school districts may exceed these limits at local expense through municipal bonds, but the state bears the major financial burden of capital costs for approved school construction projects. As such, Maine DOE first looks at the possibility of renovations or renovations with additions and new school construction projects are only considered in instances in which renovation projects are not economically or educationally feasible.

According to Howell, there are 21 steps in the school construction process for state funded projects.

“The first three steps are steps related to the application for a building.  The project started step 4 last week when an advertisement was completed for architectural services for the project,” he said. “Once an architectural firm is selected, the district will work with that firm to complete an analysis of new versus renovation and to conduct an analysis of possible sites in the district to construct a new building.”

He said specific work by RSU 14 toward developing a vision for the new school building started more than a year ago. 

“The district engaged the services of an experienced school planner named Frank Locker who has worked with teams across the world to design and build new school buildings,” Howell said.  “Frank has been working with a group of stakeholders through a process of examining middle level programming, student grouping, functionality and equipment, environment in the new learning space, future learning, and how the building can be used for all members of the RSU 14 community.  A final report from the work of this group will be presented this spring.  The document will be used by the architects to develop concept designs for the new building.”

Once an architect has been chosen by the district, RSU 14 representatives will then meet with the Maine DOE in a pre-design conference to discuss methods that can simplify construction through use of efficient engineering systems, designs, and come up with realistic construction schedules for the project.

It’s been a long road for RSU 14 to reach this point in the process, but one that the Windham Middle School principal says he is happy to see becoming a reality.

“I am very excited to begin working with the state on our school construction project. Not only will we be able to create a safe and welcoming school, but we will have the opportunity to design a building that meets the educational needs of our students in this current age and for generations of students to come,” said Drew Patin, WMS principal. “We will create spaces that promote lifelong skills, such as collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and perseverance.”

He said the intention of the project is for Windham Middle School to be a place of high engagement for students by focusing on teaching the skills needed for our students to be successful in the workplace and post-secondary educational settings.

“Our mission is for school to not look like the typical school setting and for students to go home excited to tell their parents, guardians, and friends about their experiences that day,” he said. < 

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