PORTLAND, MAINE -- 08/17/18 -- Assistant Principal Sarah Sirois stands in the hall at the new Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School in Portland on Friday. Artist Artist Janet Redfield designed the colorful, glass fish hanging from the ceiling. Troy R. Bennett | BDN Credit: Troy R. Bennett

PORTLAND, Maine — With just 17 days to go, the race is on to get the new Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School ready for the first day of classes on Sept. 4.

“We’re going to be ready any moment now,” said a confident Assistant Principal Sarah Sirois. “After we’re in here for about a month, there’s going to be student art all over the walls and all over the hallways.”

That my be true, but for now, the school is still decorated with paint cans, ladders and extension cords. Where students will soon roam, workmen scurry, inside and out, adding the finishing touches.

The new school replaces the six-decade-old Fred P. Hall Elementary School.

A 2012 fire badly damaged the Hall school, although the facility had been in desperate need of upgrades even before the blaze.

Four years later, Portlanders took to the ballot box to approve the $29.7-million rebuild with the ample help from the state.

As originally planned, all but $1.4 million of the construction would be covered by Maine’s longstanding but somewhat intermittent school construction fund. This made the funding decision largely uncontroversial and it was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters.

[The Hall School needs serious work. But so do these other 4 Portland schools]

A classroom inside the new Amanda C. Rowe School (top photo) is stacked with a few of the 2,500 or so boxes moved over from the old Fred P. Hall Elementary School. Each door, inside and out, at the the new school (above left) can be locked remotely by the front office. Artist Janet Redfield designed the colorful, glass fish (above right) hanging from the ceiling at the new school. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

The easy ballot process and state funds contrast with the more recent political struggle over the city borrowing money for much-needed work at four other elementary schools.

Last fall, city residents voted to approve a $64-million bond to fund improvements at Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth elementary schools. The vote followed more than a year of sometimes fierce debate over how to pay for the renovations.

[The endless battle to fix Portland’s older schools]

Earlier in 2017, the City Council deadlocked over the bond proposal, with councilors worrying over how taxpayers would cope with a debt burden that that will ultimately add up to $92 million.

Eventually, the council compromised and sent voters two competing bond proposals: the $64-million one that was eventually approved, and a second plan for half that sum, which would have paid for work at two schools and sought state funding for the other two.

Ahead of the vote, the city forecasted that the decision to fund work on all four schools locally would add $1,128 in property taxes for each $100,000 of home valuation over the bond’s 26-year life.

The new Rowe school is more than 30,000 square feet larger than the old Hall School. It’s been designed to serve as many as 558 students. It sports an oversized gymnasium with a padded floor big enough to serve as a community meeting space.

The stage opens on both the cafeteria and gymnasium at the new Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School in Portland. The school is located near the site of the old Fred P. Hall school and is named after a longtime school nurse who died in 2013. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Each door in the new school, inside and out, can be locked and unlocked from the central office. Each door also has a keypad for security.

The Rowe school also sports a king-sized cafeteria. It’s designed to be large enough to serve the whole school in just two periods.

A loader moves dirt outside the the new Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School in Portland on Friday. A formal grand opening is expected in September, after students have had an opportunity to settle in their new digs. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“That way, you get more instructional time,” said Doug Sherwood, the Portland School Department’s facilities coordinator.

Once the Rowe school is finished, Sherwood said the next project will be a major renovation of the Lyseth Elementary School.

“We just signed a contract with an architect, yesterday,” he said.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.