This visual shows where on North Yarmouth-owned land a future School Administrative District 51 primary school could be built, in relation to the Wescustogo Hall & Community Center. Courtesy Oak Point Associates

NORTH YARMOUTH — School Administrative District 51’s Building Committee has narrowed its site options for a new primary school down to one preference: town-owned land behind the Wescustogo Hall & Community Center.

That 120 Memorial Highway facility sits on the property of the pared-down and renovated former North Yarmouth Memorial School, which SAD 51 closed in 2014 in the wake of declining enrollment and turned over to the town.

Increased student numbers in recent years and maxed-out capacity at the Mabel I. Wilson elementary school, have triggered SAD 51’s push for a new school.

The 19.4-acre vacant and forested parcel the district is eyeing “has enough space for a school of this size” and sits in the center of town, SAD 51 Superintendent Jeff Porter said.

The district is looking to North Yarmouth to gift the land to the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school system, a decision which could go before North Yarmouth voters at a June referendum. A final referendum in both towns would be held this November.

Porter said he hopes to present the proposed project to the North Yarmouth Select Board on Tuesday, March 31, should that meeting not be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Other properties under consideration included Sharp’s Field, next to Town Hall, and a town-owned tract in Cumberland, bordered by Tuttle Road and the Town Forest. The Building Committee, which is working with project architect Oak Point Associates, discussed a new building on SAD 51’s Cumberland campus, but space limitations nixed that possibility.

“I think we can do something (there),” but it would be incredibly difficult,” Porter said, citing added vehicular traffic and parking as examples. “We’re already very congested.”

Although he is vice chairman of the Select Board, Steve Morrison said he serves on the Building Committee as a North Yarmouth resident, not a Select Board member.

The site in North Yarmouth “gives a lot of momentum to the town effort to create a town center,” he said. “It brings a school back to the town of North Yarmouth, which many residents want.”

The location is near the Sam Ristitch Nature Trail, which leads down to a forested loop trail, and “there are a whole lot of reasons from a learning standpoint that these children can be in a rural environment,” Morrison said.

The structure could house 708 pre-kindergarten to second grade students in about 100,000 square feet. The $36.4 million project estimate is a number Porter called “extremely preliminary” in January.

SAD 51 voters in 2011 approved closing the former Drowne Road School and transferring third grade students to the Wilson School. They voted in 2013 to close the former North Yarmouth Memorial School and relocate its fourth and fifth grade students to an expanded Greely Middle School. Declining enrollment was a major factor in both cases, although levels never fell to the point two major studies predicted 10 years ago, and the past four years have seen “a steady increase,” according to Porter.

Two independent surveys concluded 10 years ago that enrollment this year would be 1,775-1,831, but the level reached 2,129 this year, including 28 pre-K students. A study done last October forecasts enrollment to surpass 2,700 by 2028-29. The growth is “a combination of new development and turnover housing,” Porter said.

Enrollment at the Wilson school, which is about 81,000 square feet and houses pre-K to third grade with a capacity for 600 students, rose from 541 in March 2015 to 692 in September 2019, prompting the installation of three modular buildings that house six classroom. A single modular that contains eight classrooms is in next year’s proposed budget.

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