Advocates continue push for Harpswell charter school

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HARPSWELL — Details and differing opinions are emerging about a proposed marine-themed charter school as the project gains momentum.

For the past few months, the Harpswell Coastal Academy’s advisory committee has been holding public forums on the plan for a public charter school for 280 students in grades six through 12.

The vision is for a project-based learning experience with a marine focus, where students may build boats or seed clam beds, according to advisory committee member Robert Anderson.

In response to questions asked at recent forums, the committee is hammering down details about its timeline, where the school might be located and how it would be funded.

Eventually, the school’s advisory committee would like to establish the school at Mitchell Field. In the interim, spokesman Tom Allen said, they are hoping to start out at the former West Harpswell School, which was closed in June 2011.

“If the West Harpswell School is available to us, it would make a wonderful beginner home,” Allen said.

That idea received an initial boost at the annual Town Meeting this month, when voters in a nonbinding referendum indicated a preference for keeping the school for town use.

The first day of school is still well into the future, and Allen said the group is not ready to apply for the 2012-2013 school year.

Under a 2011 law, there are two ways to start a charter school in Maine: by applying to the Maine State Charter School Commission, which can create 10 schools over the next 10 years, or through a local school district.

The Harpswell group is eying the second option, which would require School Administrative District 75 to approve the plan and funnel state funding to the charter school. SAD 75 would be required to give the charter school the same amount per pupil as any other child in the district, but would remain responsible for special education.

Although SAD 75 would authorize the charter school, the School Board would not run it except to make sure the school meets the terms of its agreement with the district, according to Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. The board would, however, have the authority to revoke the school’s charter.

The academy would have to accept students from around the state and could not discriminate between them. That means if there are more applicants than available spaces, the school’s directors could not favor Harpswell or other SAD 75 students.

Allen said he and other advisory group members have yet to meet with Brad Smith, superintendent of SAD 75, or to get their idea onto a School Board agenda.

Kay Ogrodnik, who just finished her first year on the board, said she supports the idea, especially if it helps reduce the high school drop out rate.

“If it helps to focus young men and women on education and not end up with drop outs, I think it’s a good idea. And I think that’s good for SAD 75 as well as for Harpswell,” Ogrodnik said.

But Joanne Rogers, a 26-year veteran and current vice chairwoman of the board, said she has concerns about the financial impact of a charter school.

“I don’t know the full effect this would have on our district,” Rogers said. “And in an era of diminishing resources, I would be hesitant to look at something that would reduce those resources further.”

Jane Meisenbach, now in her third term on the board, said she didn’t know enough about the school to comment, but questioned where the money would come from.

“Looking at the budget and the cuts we’re making makes me wonder how they’re planning to finance the charter school,” she said.

Board member Linda Hall said she didn’t know enough to comment, but said it’s important people realize the charter school would draw from a large area, not just SAD 75 students.

“I think there may be an idea that it’s something against SAD 75,” she said.

In fact, being associated with an anti-SAD 75 agenda is exactly what advisory committee members are afraid of. For that reason, Robert McIntyre, who spearheaded last year’s withdrawal campaign and the charter school proposal, is not on the school’s advisory committee.

“When somebody brings up the SAD 75 withdrawal,” advisory group member Robert Anderson said at a January meeting, “we try to silence it.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.