When Westbrook’s Prides Corner Elementary School closes in June, it will join a growing list of former school buildings in Greater Portland in search of a new purpose.
Four schools in Portland, Gorham and Falmouth were closed last year, reflecting a statewide trend of declining enrollments and the construction of new, larger schools that consolidate classrooms.
Officials have found new uses for some of the old buildings, but other schools remain vacant and their future is uncertain.
Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said he will recommend that the City Council, which will take over the Prides Corner school in July, list the 30,000-square-foot building and surrounding 10 acres for sale as soon as possible.
The city considered turning Prides Corner, assessed at $2.2 million, into a fire station, but Bryant said “the conversion costs would be excessive.”
He said that if the council decides to put the school on the market, a buyer would most likely demolish the 50-year-old building – which is in dire need of repairs – and build clustered housing such as condominiums or apartments.
Putting the Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools up for sale worked out for Falmouth. The OceanView Retirement Community has agreed to buy the properties for $3.25 million. It plans to reuse the buildings for apartments and an Alzheimer’s and assisted-living facility, and to build cottages on the site.
There are no plans yet for the other two closed schools, the Nathan Clifford Elementary School in Portland and the White Rock School in Gorham, say officials in those communities.
Before Gorham considers what to do with White Rock, it will try to decide whether it will repurpose the former Little Falls School, which has served several purposes since it closed in 2003. The town, which considered using the building as a new fire station, is now considering putting its police department there.
Although deteriorating school buildings have always been replaced by newer facilities, more Maine schools have been vacated in recent years than in the past, leaving more communities with the question of what to do with the buildings.
“We definitely are seeing more schools closing in the past five to 10 years, especially in the past three to five,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
Fifteen public schools closed in Maine in 2011, while only four new schools opened in the fall. Since the end of the 2000-01 school year, 154 schools have closed and 65 have opened, according to a list kept by the Department of Education.
Connerty-Marin attributes the trend to declining enrollments. The number of public school students in Maine has dropped by 9 percent in the past 10 years, from 205,600 in 2001 to 187,200 in 2011.
He said enrollment is expected to “bottom out” within the next couple of years, then begin to increase gradually.
Often, the decision to close a school because of declining enrollment isn’t based only on the cost of operating the building, said Connerty-Marin. When there aren’t enough students and teachers in a school, it’s hard to offer an array of academics and activities, from Advanced Placement classes to a chess club, he said.
Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing, said redeveloping a school building can pose challenges if it’s in poor condition or requires asbestos abatement. On the other hand, he said, schools are often in prime locations, and a large classroom is about the size of a one-bedroom apartment, which can hold down construction costs.
Avesta has bought several former school properties in the state to redevelop into affordable housing, including the Shailer, Emerson and Adams schools on Munjoy Hill in Portland.
The Shailer and Emerson buildings were kept intact, while the Adams building was demolished.
Craig Young, a partner with CBRE The Boulos Co., said he hasn’t specifically noticed more school buildings on the market in recent years but has seen more municipally owned parcels for sale.
“I think most towns are under a mandate to cut expenses and consolidate when they can,” said Young, who is representing Falmouth in the sale of the Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools, as well as a fire station.
He said municipalities should be getting good prices for those properties.
“The market in southern Maine is better than people think it is,” said Young.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: