North Yarmouth faces decision about its only school

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NORTH YARMOUTH — With the town’s only school closing in June, the question remains about what to do with the 38-year-old building after it is turned over to the town.

The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors voted in December 2012 to close the North Yarmouth Memorial School at the end of the 2013-2014 school year as a cost-saving measure, and to move its fourth- and fifth-grade students to an expanded Greely Middle School in Cumberland.

A Cumberland-North Yarmouth referendum in June affirmed that decision, and the School Board voted Dec. 2 to transfer the building to the town of North Yarmouth.

Whether the town’s acceptance must be by its Board of Selectmen or by Town Meeting is still being determined.

The Aug. 29 fire that destroyed Wescustogo Hall – where elections, Town Meeting and many social events were held – has arguably made the future of the school, in terms of development plans for North Yarmouth, that much more crucial.

The North Yarmouth Economic Development and Sustainability Committee on Dec. 17 presented the Board of Selectmen with a multi-part recommendation for developing municipal properties in the town center, a concept that had to be revised in the wake of the blaze at the former Grange hall.

Among other suggestions, the committee calls for the town to partner with a developer to “redevelop Memorial School as either elderly housing or a co-working/office sharing site,” according to a document the panel submitted to the town.

“As part of this effort, (the town would) preserve rights to public spaces on the Memorial School parcel, such as the baseball field,” the document states. “As we discuss options with the developer, we can determine whether the Town can preserve certain uses to the interior of the Memorial School building, such as the gymnasium.”

Pam Ames, vice president of the board of trustees of Skyline Farms, said Dec. 26 that she had originally preferred the school be used as a municipal building, but was informed that option would be too expensive. She noted one suggestion that small businesses might want to come together in a co-op fashion and share office services there.

She proposed the school be redeveloped as a multi-use site, with recreational, social and educational activities offered as well. A bank, ice cream parlor, coffee shop or pub with food, consignment shops, and a resource room with services like computer classes and tax preparation help, could be located there, she added, with a farmer’s market somewhere on the property as well.

“It would be nice to have a little coffee shop, maybe, a little bakery-type thing,” she said. “Kind of a destination; a center where we could all walk to and enjoy both the athletic field and the gymnasium, and maybe have a snack, and then see some small businesses using it so it’s vibrant.”

Ames said the gym would be an asset for both North Yarmouth and Cumberland.

“It’s such a beautiful facility,” she said.

She also suggested the ball field could be flooded during the winter to serve as a skating arena, with the hills offering a site for sliding.

Tara Sasseville said during an Oct. 17 brainstorming forum, held at the school, that with students moving out of the school next year, “we’re trying to figure out what might be a draw for North Yarmouth, so that roads lead into North Yarmouth, instead of out.”

She pointed out that a performing arts center is something of interest to SAD 51. Other ideas involve a community center, with amenities like a pool or ice rink, “using the gym space so that the (recreation) programs and adult education could all happen on this site.”

Jeanne Chadbourne, who taught at both NYMS and in Cumberland, opposes the school’s closure, and the relocation of its students to the expanded middle school. She said it is SAD 51’s highest academically performing school, noting that small educational facilities perform better than the big ones.

She acknowledged that the structure does need work, but said it should have been maintained all along.

“I worry about the kids who are not going to have the opportunity to go through a couple of years of their education in that setting,” she said Dec. 27.

Chadbourne noted that the school could be in Cumberland, “if they want all the bricks and mortar in one campus. But it doesn’t need to be attached to a building that is being cut and pasted to make it work.”

While she believes the students will still get a good education at the middle school, “if anyone thinks … what happens (at NYMS) is going to be replicated (at GMS), it’s not,” she said. “And if they think it is, they don’t know an awful lot about education.”

Chadbourne said she does not know what she would like to be done with the building; only that “I want it to become a school again.”

“I love that school; I’m so sad we’re losing it as a community resource,” Katie Murphy, who serves on the economic development committee and other town groups, said Dec. 26. “Because of all the comings and goings of kids and parents and community events, it’s really been a critical resource for the town, and it’s going to continue to be, because we don’t have Wescustogo Hall, so our backup for meetings, and probably for Town Meeting, is the big gym. … So we’ll be seeing a lot of it, in the next year or two or more, I think.”

Murphy said she is a believer in her committee’s recommendation.

“We’re going to be looking out to see who might want to occupy (the building),” she explained, speculating that a developer may be interested in using it for congregate housing, or a company could use it as a corporate headquarters.

And she noted the strong desire expressed by many residents that the gym section be a community resource. It has also been suggested that the space could serve as an emergency shelter in the case of storms.

“We don’t know what’s out there, but we’re excited about that,” Murphy said. “… I see that we are, as a town, pulling together in a big community way, and there’s a lot of opportunity there that we don’t really even yet know.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Pam Ames.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.