SAD 51 board plans Dec. 17 vote on closing North Yarmouth school

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NORTH YARMOUTH — The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors plans to vote Dec. 17 on whether to close North Yarmouth Memorial School and move its students to an expanded Greely Middle School.

The board heard comments on the matter from residents of the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district at a public hearing Monday evening.

Issues raised included placing the North Yarmouth school’s fourth- and fifth-graders in a building with older students, whether there would be enough classroom space at the enlarged middle school to serve the increased population, and the availability of parking.

The North Yarmouth Memorial School Task Force has recommended closing the school and moving its students to the middle school as a means of saving the district money. It cited economic challenges, work needed at the North Yarmouth building, and declining enrollments.

Operational savings from closing the 36-year-old school – the only one in North Yarmouth – were estimated to be $750,000 annually earlier this year, but a more recent review reduced the estimate to about $555,000. An additional administrator at Greely Middle School to meet the needs of the two younger grades was factored in, and projected savings in transportation were found not to be as great as initially anticipated.

Renovation of the middle school – which would include expanded library and cafeteria space, and four new classrooms – could cost $2 million, with debt service of $178,000 a year over two decades, according to Scott Poulin, the district finance director. That would result in a net annual savings of about $377,000.

This course of action would allow SAD 51 to avoid renovating the North Yarmouth school, or building a new one. Poulin said renovation could cost about $7 million and create annual debt service payments of $623,000.

If the School Board votes to close the North Yarmouth school and expand the middle school, the matter could go to a district-wide referendum in June 2013.

It would be the second time in two years that SAD 51 voters decide whether to close a school; they approved the closure of the Drowne Road School, and transferring its third-grade students to the Mabel I. Wilson School in Cumberland, in June 2011.

The task force’s executive summary noted that the North Yarmouth school’s students could be moved to Greely Middle School while preserving those student groups in “relative isolation” from the middle school’s current sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

A document circulated at the meeting Monday noted that fourth- and fifth-graders would still be a distinct group at the middle school, with a distinct space. It also said the younger students’ proximity to older students “will make it easier for them to take advantage of academic opportunities offered at Greely Middle School. Programs such as book buddies, Big Brother Big Sister, language days and mentoring, will all be benefits students can take advantage of due to their location on a central campus.”

The document also said that in the past decade SAD 51 has spent more than $600,000 on capital projects at the North Yarmouth school, including roof repairs, new floors, rebuilt walls, asbestos and mold abatements, and a new hot water system.

Jeanne Chadbourne of North Yarmouth was among residents of both towns who argued for the school to be maintained.

“What goes on in this school is outstanding teaching, and therefore, there’s excellent learning,” she said. “And I can’t imagine a School Board … would not look into that more than you are (concerning) money.”

“Why would we eliminate one of the most productive educational facilities in our system?,” Chadbourne asked, crediting the school’s success to its smaller size.

Beverly Lawrence of North Yarmouth spoke to the importance of children having a healthy social and emotional environment at school, and wondered whether another example existed of fourth- and fifth-grade students being placed in a building with grades six through eight.

North Yarmouth voters rejected a referendum question last month that would have started the town’s withdrawal from SAD 51, which North Yarmouth formed with Cumberland in 1966.

The Dec. 17 School Board meeting will be held at Greely High School at 7 p.m.

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.