Friday, July 30, 2021

Work on Windham Middle School construction advancing

Portland's Lavallee Brensinger Company has been selected
as the architect of the new Windham Middle School
construction project and joined RSU 14 representatives at
a meeting in Augusta this week to discuss what needs to be
done to get the project started. The new school is expected
to be completed by the fall of 2026. PHOTO BY ED PIERCE

By Ed Pierce

The plan to renovate and build a new Windham Middle School remains at the forefront of RSU 14’s agenda this summer and an architectural firm has been chosen to lead the project.

In June, the RSU 14 Board of Directors voted 8-0 approving the Lavallee Brensinger Company of Portland to serve as architects for the project and this week, RSU 14 Superintendent Christopher Howell, Bill Hansen, RSU 14’s Director of Facilities, Property Services and Special Projects, joined representatives of Lavallee Brensinger at a meeting in Augusta with the head of school construction projects for the state of Maine.

Howell said that the pre-design meeting in Augusta clarified how much in depth of a study that RSU 14 will need to complete for an analysis of potential renovation of the current WMS building and discussed the possibility of constructing the building on the current WMS campus across from Windham High School.

Since this is a state funded project, we will be working with the state to negotiate the project fees associated with the first two steps,” Howell said. “The fees for the final construction project are based on a percentage of the total cost of the project.”

He said Lavallee Brensinger architects will be working with the Windham Middle School Building Committee while RSU 14 works through the construction process.  

“Bill Hansen and I will be acting as liaisons between the committee and the firm,” Howell said. “The first step of the project will include a new versus renovation analysis of the current Windham School Building that will be completed by the firm. If the data points to new construction, which we are anticipating, we will work with the firm to complete a site analysis for a new building.”

According to Howell, the RSU 14 Board of Directors chose Lavallee Brensinger as the project architect based upon their extensive experience with high quality school construction projects and their proven ability to complete projects efficiently and economically.

“The firm has demonstrated an ability to work with clients to help them fulfill their visions for a school plant and has a reputation for completing high quality school buildings,” Howell said. “Most recently, the group completed Sanford High School and Morse High School. They are currently building a middle school that is similar to our project for the Oyster River School District in New Hampshire. They have a reputation for shepherding projects that are completed on time and on budget.”

Howell said the project remains on track to be completed for students by the fall of 2026.

After several years of being ranked at Number 5 overall among state-approved and subsidized construction projects, RSU 14 learned in March that the highly anticipated project was greenlighted by the state to move forward although how much actual funding for the project is yet unknown. The determining factor for funding depends upon whether the aging 44-year-old school will be rebuilt or renovated.      

Howell said that the original Windham Middle School was completed in 1977 and was built for a capacity of 483 students.  In the past year, that number has now grown to 636 students, with sixth graders housed for some classes at the adjacent Field Allen School, originally constructed 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.”   

During the 2020-2021 school year, more than 200 students had to 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.

Howell said that RSU 14 originally applied for the Maine Department of Education’s Major Capital Construction Program in 2016 for funding for construction and was ranked as the fifth-highest priority among 74 proposed school construction projects statewide each year before being greenlighted for funding in March 2021.

“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 in 2019. 

“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.”

This spring WMS Principal Drew Patin said he was thrilled that the project is now moving ahead.

“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,” Patin said. “We will create spaces that promote lifelong skills, such as collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and perseverance.” < 

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