The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors held their board meeting in North Yarmouth last week to hear the views of Cumberland and North Yarmouth citizens on the recommendation to close North Yarmouth Memorial School and to move 341 fourth- and fifth-graders to the Greely Middle School campus.
The consensus public response was slow down and come up with a long-term, sensible plan that serves the needs of the students.
The short-term economic argument for closing NYMS is hard to rebut. NYMS, which was built in the 1970s, is approaching its twilight years as a cost-efficient school. Year-to-year maintenance costs are high. Renovating the school would cost $5.1 million and constructing a replacement school would cost $10.5 million.
On the other hand, if we close NYMS and spend $2 million to add four classrooms and additional library and cafeteria space at the middle school (with long-term bond payments of$180,000 per year), then the net savings are estimated to be $550,000 per year.
So, who could argue with closing NYMS and saving $550,000 a year?
Well, the parents and students at the public forum had serious concerns. NYMS is a very effective educational environment for fourth- and fifth-grade students. The school provides a critical separation between the Mabel Wilson School/kindergarten years and the middle school.
Any parent or post-middle school student will acknowledge that the Greely Middle School years are a challenge from a social/emotional/developmental perspective. So do you really want to take a high-performing school environment for our fourth- and fifth-graders and place them into the middle school environment?
And then there is the North Yarmouth perspective. North Yarmouth pays 30 percent of the costs of SAD 51 and that amount is increasing every year in proportion to Cumberland.
If NYMS closes, there will not be any physical assets of SAD 51 in North Yarmouth.
If North Yarmouth votes to keep the NYMS school open, then North Yarmouth has to pay the additional costs associated with maintaining the school. If the school is closed, then the NYMS site and the very substantial costs of demolishing or renovating the school would be borne by North Yarmouth residents.
As we consider the NYMS closing proposal, we are in a period of serious budget shortfalls and a declining student population. While the short-term fix of closing the school is the easy default position, where does that leave Cumberland and North Yarmouth when we look beyond the next 10 years?
My prediction is that we will have put our third- and fourth-graders through 10 years of early middle school angst, the $550,000-per-year savings will be much more modest than projected, we will have at least $2 million in long-term debt on middle school renovations that do not fit our educational needs, more North Yarmouth residents will feel disenfranchised from the school district, and we will be forming a committee to find a new site for an elementary school to meet a rising student population.
As a community, we have not yet agreed upon a sound, long-term solution for maintaining the educational experience of our third- and fourth-grade students at a reasonable cost. So let’s slow down and give the School Board and the Cumberland and North Yarmouth communities time to develop a long-term plan to replace NYMS.
David Perkins is a North Yarmouth resident and former member and chairman of the SAD 51 School Board.