Levesque: Lewiston schools at capacity

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LEWISTON – Due to growing enrollment by mostly immigrant Somali students, every school building in Lewiston has run out of room.

“We are packed everywhere,” School Superintendent Leon Levesque told the school committee Monday night.

Levesque and Longley School principal Tom Hood gave a presentation on why the school department needs to take over all of the Multi-Purpose Building, which is now used as both Longley School and by Lewiston senior citizens.

City Councilor Stavros Mendros warned that senior citizens have an emotional attachment to the building, and it’s not clear that the city council will grant the school department’s request.

“The seniors are very upset,” Mendros said. “They feel the building was built for them. … They don’t want to leave that place.”

If all of the building was used as the Longley School, the school would get five additional classrooms, a larger cafeteria, five more bathrooms and other kinds of space. Longley was built to hold a maximum of 205 students, Levesque said. The school now holds 268. That’s 33 more than as recent as December, Levesque said. The number is expected to grow, he said. “It’s a moving target,” he said.

If the city council doesn’t kick seniors out of the Multi-Purpose Building, Longley will have to buy two additional portable classrooms at a cost of $79,000, Levesque said. Those extra classrooms would be a Band-Aid fix, only good for a year, and not take care of other needs. Those other needs include an overcrowded cafeteria, a lack of bathrooms, not enough rooms to tutor special-needs students, a nurse’s office that does not have a bathroom, which necessary if a sick child grows sicker.

Hood described walking by one small room where one teacher was working with eight students around a table. “You can’t move.”

With some rooms used as public meeting spaces, there’s a lack of security for students. Sometimes members of the public poke their heads into classrooms, Hood said.

While it’s not their decision, several school board members spoke in favor of using all of the building for students, forcing the seniors to go elsewhere for their meetings, lunches and recreation such as cribbage, pinochle, pool and bridge.

Committee member John Butler Jr. said he does not favor spending the money for two portable classrooms. “I prefer stitches to Band-Aids,” Butler said.

Member Norm Provost asked if a couple of portable classrooms could be used for the seniors.

“It’s a no brainer that Longley needs the building,” said committee member Larry Lachance. The school must have “some elbow room.”

School board Chairman Jim Handy said his committee is sympathetic to seniors. “It’s not seniors verses education.” It’s important to do what’s best for all, Handy said.

In other business:

• The new proposed Pettingill School may be built on College Street where a golf driving range now operates. Negotiations over price with the property’s owner are ongoing, Levesque said.

If that site is approved in public meetings, by the state and finally by a city referendum, a new, larger Pettingill school would open in the fall of 2009.

• With a $1.5 million hole in the city budget, Mendros cautioned the city council will likely ask the school department to cut its budget. With homes being re-evaluated, it’s important there be no tax increase this year so that the property tax revolt going on in Auburn does not happen in Lewiston, Mendros said.

The idea of cutting didn’t go well with educators. Levesque said Lewiston is already spending less than what the state says it should spend.

Butler asked how much the city spends on Catholic schools.

About $300,000 for books, transportation and a school nurse, Mendros estimated.

Why not cut there, Butler asked. Referring to parents who send their children to Catholic schools, he said: “It’s their choice.”

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