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Portsmouth works to bring Lister Academy to Community Campus

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PORTSMOUTH — City school district leaders are estimating the cost to renovate the Community Campus building to make way for the Robert J. Lister Academy in the near future will be $3.5 million to $4 million.

Portsmouth School Board members were briefed Tuesday on the city alternative high school program’s eventual move to the expansive Community Campus, which the city purchased for $10 million. Lister Academy will vacate the old Sherburne School building.

School Board chairperson Nancy Clayburgh said SAU 52 already has $1.5 million in funding for a window repair project at Dondero and Little Harbour elementary schools, which was designated to the district from the city’s capital improvement planning. 

The school district will move that allocation over to pay for the renovations to the Community Campus. To pay for the window repairs at the two elementary schools, the district will now contribute $1.5 million from its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The school department is requesting $2 million from the city’s fiscal year 2024 capital improvement planning to cover the remainder of estimated costs to renovate the Community Campus. The City Council would need to approve the funding request.

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“But everyone feels confident that they will approve that because the city obviously has a deep interest in the Sherburne School building,” Clayburgh said. 

Vision for Lister Academy’s new home

The district’s business administrator, Nathan Lunney, addressed a discrepancy between the estimated total cost of renovations versus the request made to the city for additional funding.

At the Community Campus, the Robert J. Lister Academy will have roughly 12,000 square feet of space. Lunney stated that “not every square foot costs as much as every other square foot” and believes the full cost of renovations could come to $3.6 million, though the city is waiting on a final figure from city-based JSA Architects. 

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“I’m resolved that we should make sure we move our students into a great place like we did when we moved kids back into Dondero and Little Harbour and the like,” he said. “It should be a contemporary learning space. I’m not convinced we need $4 million. We don’t need the Cadillac, some of the things we can adjust.”

Working with JSA Architects, SAU 52 administrators and Robert J. Lister Academy staff produced a space needs analysis to pinpoint what the program’s layout at the 72,000-square-foot Community Campus would look like. A concept design shows five main classroom spaces for science, math, English, social studies, and art and construction. 

The design also calls for a multipurpose room, a teaching kitchen, tutor and counseling space, staff offices, a student lounge and storage space.

“It more or less reproduces a lot of the spaces already existing in Lister (Academy),” Superintendent Zach McLaughlin said. “There’s not a lot of new in here. There’s a lot of re-creation of what they already have but in nicer facilities.”

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Once Robert J. Lister Academy, a program started in 1992 with a typical enrollment of upwards of 30 students, moves to the Community Campus, the long-term goal for the city is to convert the building into affordable housing units, according to Clayburgh.

“We feel that these funds are all going to be there for us to make this project happen,” she added.

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Clayburgh said the district is looking at potentially moving the program to the Community Campus in January 2024 after funding is approved and renovations are complete.

“The kids will be so thrilled to go to a new space,” said School Board member Ann Walker. “They’ll adjust easily.”

The School Board will hold a site walk of the Robert J. Lister Academy’s intended space at the Community Campus on Dec. 20.

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