Panel suggests closing North Yarmouth school

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NORTH YARMOUTH — A task force is suggesting the 36-year-old North Yarmouth Memorial School be closed and its students moved to an expanded Greely Middle School in Cumberland.

The intent of the proposal is to save School Administrative District 51 more than half a million dollars a year. But it could also provide fuel for an ongoing petition drive to withdraw North Yarmouth from the district.

Task force Chairman Mark Girard noted that his group’s recommendation is only that. He said he hopes the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors will discuss it thoughtfully, and compared the task force’s work to the first leg of a marathon.

“We don’t make any decisions,” he said. “… We were asked to come to a recommendation, and we did, but as important if not more important was trying to assemble the information and the thought process so that other people could continue that discussion.”

The task force did not suggest a date to close the school.

It presented a draft of its executive summary to the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school board on Feb. 6. Task force members hope to have the final version of the report ready for the board’s March 17 meeting, Girard said.

He pointed out in an e-mail that long-term projections for SAD 51 indicate a student population decrease, “and with the higher operating costs and the excess space increasing as the school population, per projections, decreases over the next five years, it was the committee’s recommendation that the school be closed and those savings captured.”

The task force also recommended that North Yarmouth and the School Board plan actively for an eventual reversal of SAD 51’s population decline, and to address that future need with a school in that town.

The executive summary notes that grades four and five, which the North Yarmouth school houses, could be moved to Greely Middle School while preserving those student groups in “relative isolation” from the middle school’s current sixth through eighth grades.

To accommodate the two additional grades, the task force has recommended the 130,000-square-foot middle school be expanded with a 4,000-square-foot two-story addition to the cafeteria and library, and with another 4,000-square-foot two-story addition for four new classrooms.

Girard noted that the North Yarmouth school is 41,000 square feet and has 3,000 square feet of temporary classroom trailers. Minus the 8,000 square feet of proposed new space at the middle school, SAD 51 have a net reduction of 36,000 square feet of building area to maintain.

According to projections for the 2013-2014 school year, the Greely Middle School student population will be 473, while North Yarmouth Memorial School’s will be 312, for a combined total of 785 students.

“While the (middle school) could be pressed to absorb the population without additional program space, it was determined that an addition of four classrooms would sustain desired educational outcomes and substantially preserve area to student ratios within acceptable ranges,” according to the report.

The document notes that closure of the North Yarmouth school would save about $750,000 a year. This, offset by about $200,000 a year in added financed capital and operational costs due to the middle school’s expansion, would result in a net savings of about $550,000 a year.

The additions are projected to have a capital cost of $2 million, to be financed by bonding. Annual costs would be about $180,000 in principal and interest expenses, and additional operational costs for the expanded middle school would be about $20,000.

SAD 51 voters approved the closure of the Drowne Road School in Cumberland last June, echoing a School Board vote the previous year. The third grade was moved to the Mabel I. Wilson School, also in Cumberland.

The suggested closure of North Yarmouth Memorial School, meanwhile, could generate more support for former Selectman Mark Verrill, who is collecting signatures for the withdrawal of North Yarmouth from SAD 51

Verrill advocates maintaining a school in North Yarmouth, which formed SAD 51 with Cumberland in 1966.

Verrill, a selectman from 2008-2011, said last November that he has seen many people struggle to pay their property taxes. He said he hopes leaving the school district will achieve a “significant reduction” in property taxes, improve the quality of education at lower cost, and preserve North Yarmouth’s rural character by curbing growth.

The withdrawal petition must have at least 208 valid North Yarmouth signatures – 10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election. There is no time limit or deadline for the collection of signatures.

Verrill said he has collected 182 signatures and plans to submit the petition for validation around July 1. He said he hopes to see the referendum question on the November general election ballot.

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

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.