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Proposed Harpswell panel would scrutinize SAD 75 arguments for closing school

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Proposed Harpswell panel would scrutinize SAD 75 arguments for closing school

HARPSWELL — A proposed town committee could review cost savings used to justify the closing of West Harpswell School.

In June, the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors voted to shut the elementary school. The decision was the district's second attempt to close the school, and it came just months after Harpswell residents voted in a special referendum to keep it open.

The Board of Selectmen was expected on Thursday to consider forming a committee to review the district's savings claims, which will be presented to the state Department of Education to initiate the closure process.

The town will have 10 days to respond to the district's claims.

Selectmen Chairman Jim Henderson said he proposed the committee to ensure that the town can adequately scrutinize the district's cost-savings rationale.

"The last time this happened, we were blindsided a bit," Henderson said. "We only have 10 days to respond, which in my opinion is an indefensibly short amount of time. Any governing body confronted with this would have no time to consider the information."

Henderson has consistently opposed closing West Harpswell School, which the district argues is experiencing consistent declining enrollment. Last year, opponents countered that the district's decision was based on erroneous cost data and failed to account for other factors, including the school's history of high performance and the town's splintered geography.

If West Harpswell School, on Harpswell Neck, is closed its students would be sent to Harpswell Islands School, on Route 24.

The issue last year prompted the formation of a citizen group, Friends for Harpswell Education, which eventually sued the DOE and the district to prevent the closure.

In March, Harpswell residents voted 906-827 to pay the district $219,000 to keep the school open. The 4 percent margin was attributed to overwhelming opposition to closure and strong voter turnout in West Harpswell. The vote was much closer at the town's other two polling locations.

Closure was also a wedge issue in local elections. Pro-closure candidates were defeated, while opponents like Henderson won.

Henderson's proposed committee would be comprised of town staff, including the treasurer, town administrator and the deputy town administrator.

"The sole mission is to assess (SAD 75's) final information," Henderson said. "... We want to examine their financial claims and see if we can defend that number."

Henderson said he hoped selectmen would support the proposal, noting that even those skeptical of keeping the school open have previously sought town analysis of the district's savings claims.

Last year the district said closure would save the district $219,000.

After the SAD 75 board vote in June, Superintendent Mike Wilhelm noted that enrollment at the West Harpswell School has continued to decline. He said this year’s enrollment of about 73 is projected to drop to about 61 next year.

He said enrollment at Harpswell Islands School is about 100 and is expected to remain that way next year.

Last year SAD 75 filed its savings claims with the DOE in October. Henderson said he expects the district to file sooner this time.

"I was hoping (the vote to keep the school open) would settle this, but anticipating it wouldn't," he said.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net