Two southern Maine school districts are regrouping after voters rejected major building projects in November, and their different approaches have prompted vastly divergent responses from constituents.

Cape Elizabeth voters overwhelmingly defeated a $116 million bond issue that would have transformed the town’s aging elementary, middle, and high schools. Voters in Cumberland and North Yarmouth rejected a $73.9 million bond issue to build a new primary school that aimed to solve a stubborn crowding problem in MSAD 51.

Both districts are known for top academic results and strong support for school spending. But while Cape Elizabeth seems to be pulling together to produce a new building proposal that will win voter support, MSAD 51 officials have further antagonized their opponents.

Rendering of proposed Cape Elizabeth Middle School entrance, top, and the proposed elementary school on 80 Gray Road in North Yarmouth. Renderings courtesy of Conceptual Design Renderings by Colby Co. Engineering and Simons Architects and MSAD 51

MSAD 51 Superintendent Jeff Porter announced in a Jan. 6 newsletter that the district has extended for up to five years an option to buy a 76-acre building site in North Yarmouth for $1.2 million. Under the agreement, the district will reimburse landowner Ben Grover for the annual property taxes on the Gray Road parcel, which cost $7,126 this year, town records show.

The property – much of it too sloped or too wet to develop – was a controversial part of the proposal.

“It’s insulting to voters to continue with this,” said Lianne Mitchell, who lives next to the proposed site. “We voted the proposal down and now they’re spending more on it. It’s like they’re going to wait a while and then try to slip it in when we’re not paying attention.”


Porter said the deal keeps the land available “if we need it” and the district can still back out.

But some opponents, including Mitchell, believe district officials may be “doubling down” on a plan that was rejected by 55% of voters, whose concerns included the project’s cost, size, and development process.

When asked for interviews to discuss their next steps, Porter and school board Chair Jason Record referred to the newsletter statement and a video of the board’s Jan. 3 meeting, which included a brief discussion of the land option.

“We don’t know exactly why that project failed,” Record said at the meeting. “People are not feeling confident about the financial future. Until we have a better option on the table for sure, it was irresponsible to let that fall away. It keeps that option open where we don’t have another option right now.”


Meanwhile, Cape Elizabeth town councilors and school board members last week set up a new school building advisory committee with fresh marching orders to redo their school proposal, starting with a charge to establish a bottom-line budget that some said was missing last time.


The nine-member committee includes two town councilors, two school board members, and five citizens.

Mary Ann Lynch, a vocal opponent of the first proposal, has already begun filling out an application.

“It’s a fresh start,” said Lynch, a former town councilor who helped plan two previous school building projects.

“I am hopeful the committee will be a broadly representative group and will come up with a project that will meet student needs, win voter approval and bring the town together,” she said. “I never questioned the need. I questioned the cost, the size, and the process.”

Cape Elizabeth’s referendum failed by 1,480 votes, with 62% deciding against borrowing $116 million to design, build and equip new elementary and middle schools and renovate the high school. Voters did authorize spending an additional $5 million, to be raised in gifts and grants, to add auditorium seating, solar panels, and other upgrades to the new schools, but that vote depended on the bond passing.

Lynch said she hopes the retooled proposal will have a smaller footprint, a more affordable price tag, and a different design team.


Councilors Penny Jordan and Gretchen Noonan are on the committee, along with school board members Caitlin Sweet and Cynthia Voltz.

Jordan said she sees the town “on a journey to develop a solution for our schools that balances the needs of our students and the ability of households to absorb the cost.”

Jordan and Noonan expect the committee to bring expertise, innovative thinking, and openness to its work, including a full review of the previous proposal and community surveys to ensure broader public engagement.

“We really need to understand what people perceive to be the infrastructure conditions and needs in the schools, what they did and did not support in the last design, and where they’d like to see this go,” Noonan said.

Noonan said she’s also glad the new committee is charged with hiring a construction expert as a consultant to represent the town’s interests in the project.

Cape school officials have similar aspirations.


“We hope that a rigorous, inclusive process produces one or more viable solutions that will fully address our aging, problematic school buildings,” said Elizabeth Scifres, school board chair.

Superintendent Chris Record – no relation to MSAD 51 board chair Jason Record – said he’s excited to have the town council and school board working together to develop a new cost-effective, energy-efficient proposal that will address a host of deficiencies on a school campus where some buildings date to the mid-1900s.

“I want us to come up with a plan that meets the needs of students and staff for the next 50 years and beyond,” Record said, “and I think we will reach a project that voters will pass.”


In MSAD 51, the proposal to borrow $73.9 million failed by 874 votes, with 55% casting ballots against the building plan.

District officials and supporters said the building proposal was a necessary, responsible, energy-efficient answer to a crowding problem that will only get worse and grow more costly.


Most of the funding, $70.3 million, would have gone toward building a new primary school for 732 students in pre-K through second grade; $1.2 million would have bought the land; and $2.4 million would have renovated Mabel Wilson School in Cumberland.

After the renovations, Mabel Wilson would have housed grades three through five, and Greely Middle School in Cumberland would have housed grades six through eight. The project would have eliminated 21 modular classrooms at Mabel Wilson and seven at the middle school.

In his Jan. 6 newsletter, Porter said the district is “back to looking at all options” to relieve crowding. Porter and school board members didn’t respond to emailed questions asking what those options might include.

“Over the next few weeks, a short-term plan will be developed and presented to the board on Feb. 6 for addressing enrollment for the next three to five years on campus,” Porter said. “Even if a referendum were to be held again within the next year or two, it would take a year of planning, followed by two to three years of construction before the new school was open.”

In an email, Record said, “We will welcome much input from all residents and invite them to the workshop and other discussions. With the current fiscal uncertainty in our country right now, we are not rushing anything.”

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