More than 80 parents and teachers packed a Gorham School Committee workshop Wednesday to protest the possible reconfiguration of the town’s elementary schools.

Gorham is one of the fastest growing towns in Maine, and school officials say rising enrollments are putting a strain on the district’s buildings. The town has three neighborhood schools that all house kindergarten through fifth-grade students – Narragansett, Great Falls and Village. In the last three years, Gorham gained nearly 100 students at those grade levels, and enrollment projections show another 300 within five years.

But the town is already planning a high school expansion that could cost millions of taxpayer dollars. So rather than build or renovate just yet at the elementary schools, the district has been studying new grade configurations that might save space and buy time.

“What we’re looking for is the most efficient way to structure our schools that does not jeopardize the high quality of education in Gorham,” Superintendent Heather Perry said.

But in public comments and emails, teachers and parents overwhelmingly opposed shuffling students from their existing schools.

“Increased transitions are detrimental to student achievement,” said Mary Jo Lyons, a longtime kindergarten teacher. “I strongly believe that keeping our current configuration is best for our children in Gorham.

Southern Maine has seen a surge in new housing construction and a frenzied real estate market.

Gorham added 1,000 new residents from 2010 to 2016, making the town one of the fastest growing in the state.

“The town of Gorham is growing at a rate faster than our schools can keep up with,” said Amanda Cooper, an eighth-grade teacher and president of the Gorham Teachers Association.

A 24-person committee of school administrators, staff and teachers spent months studying new configurations for the elementary schools. They researched six scenarios that distributed students in different ways – for example, one school for kindergarteners, one for first and second grade, and one for third- through fifth-graders. Their review included rough budgets for additional staffing and portable classrooms, which Perry said would be required in every scenario.

“We still have the day-to-day issue that our population is increasing, and we are running out of space,” Perry said.

When the group presented its final report in the fall, it ultimately recommended no change to the existing configuration. The school committee planned to discuss two options for reconfiguration at a workshop Monday, prompting a swell of concern from parents and teachers.

By the time the school committee convened its meeting, more than 200 people signed a Change.org petition to keep the school configurations as they are. Of the eleven people who spoke during the public comment period, none favored school reconfiguration. Dozens of people stayed until 10 p.m. to listen to the workshop session.

Opponents said shuffling students around the district was a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and they worried the school district would need to make more changes in just a couple years. They said students would lose out on mentoring opportunities between grade levels. They predicted additional costs, like transportation, that were not factored in the committee review.

Parents said they like neighborhood schools where their children are known for six years.

“One of the benefits of neighborhood schools is that you have a large, geographically diverse community that feels like a small town,” said Libby Bischof, a 10-year resident of Gorham with a child in kindergarten.

Teachers worried about losing the programs they have built over time.

“Reconfiguring schools is going to set us back in terms of what we can offer our students,” Cooper said.

Darryl Wright, chairman of the school committee, said 50 people also sent emails with concerns about reconfiguration and overcrowding.

“We haven’t made a decision on anything yet,” Wright said.

The school committee didn’t narrow down its options during the workshop, instead trying to sketch out a long-term plan for the schools. They planned to discuss the funding for renovations or new construction projects with the Gorham Town Council next week. The members agreed they wanted to better understand what changes are needed now to set them up for their future plans for the buildings.

“If we’re going to make a change, make it once,” member Dennis Libby said.

Whatever the decision, it needs to be made soon. Perry said any costs that are included in next year’s budget need to be determined by April.

“They are on a bit of a tight time crunch,” Perry said.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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