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Topsham selectmen asked to review Harpswell school consolidation

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Topsham selectmen asked to review Harpswell school consolidation

TOPSHAM — Several residents opposed to the possible closing of the West Harpswell School are asking the Board of Selectmen to "conduct a detailed review" of the proposal.

Their letter also asked the board to hold public hearings to discuss the matter – currently being studied by the Strategic Planning Action Team of School Administrative District 75 – and to invite parents from the entire district as well as teachers and members of the SAD 75 Board of Directors.

The letter was signed by a group of six residents. It was written by residents of Topsham and Harpswell, including Scott Lemieux, who leads a parents group in Harpswell, he said.

The SAD 75 team is scheduled to present its findings on Monday, June 8, at 6 p.m. at the West Harpswell School. The team will not be making a recommendation regarding the West Harpswell School at that meeting, according to SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, a public hearing will be hosted by the Harpswell Board of Selectmen at the Harpswell Islands School to get input from residents; SAD board members and administrative staff have been invited. The SAD 75 board may discuss the matter at its meeting Thursday, June 11, which is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. in Room 201 of Mt. Ararat High School.

The residents' letter calls for the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Jim Ashe to urge Wilhelm to extend the action team's study until Aug. 1.

The SAD 75 board in March approved a planning framework proposed by the district's Comprehensive Strategic Planning Committee that is meant to address declines in both enrollment and financial resources. Among the committee's proposed courses of action is to close the West Harpswell School and move its fewer than 80 students to the larger Harpswell Islands School. The reconfiguration would not occur until at least the 2010-2011 school year.

Reorganization would be intended to provide all SAD 75 students equal access to educational resources, Wilhelm has said. Consolidation of Harpswell's two elementary schools could also provide the combined school with Title 1 funds, which currently only the West Harpswell School receives, he said.

Title 1 funding – SAD 75 currently receives about $500,000 – is provided by the federal government to support students at risk of failing at schools that have concentrations of poverty. Those schools with population percentages greater than the district average for disadvantaged students have access to those funds, while those that have a demographic below that average do not receive the funds, according to Wilhelm.

Lemieux, who has a second-grader at West Harpswell, is one of several Harpswell residents who have expressed opposition to the merger. His name tops a list of Harpswell taxpayers who signed a May 25 letter to the Harpswell Board of Selectmen requesting a public hearing on consolidation.

"On a regular basis, I interact with kids at West Harpswell School," said Lemieux, whose wife volunteers at the school. "You will have a kid whose parents are working in some cases three, four and five jobs to make ends meet, and some children in the school ... do not have the one-on-one attention that we see in my house."

Lemieux said he saw one child who could not read in first grade, but who is now "doing exceedingly well" thanks to the quality of education received at the West Harpswell School.

"I am all for pumping additional resources into Harpswell Islands School," Lemieux said. "Educating all of Harpswell's students is very important to me. But it is also very important that they be educated in their communities. Harpswell is not just an individual community, but it has neighborhoods. And the neighborhood which largely defines the population of qualifying students by Title 1 is around West Harpswell School."

He added that "the idea that we would strip those students from their community and bus them seven-plus miles across the way and add additional burdens to their already federally defined qualification status is deplorable."

Community-based schools with highly involved parents have been shown to bring excellent results at the elementary level, Lemieux said.

The letter submitted to the Topsham Board of Selectmen said closing West Harpswell would add additional burdens to the population which, by Title 1 definition, is defined as disadvantaged. "This is contrary to the legal intent of the (Title 1) law and may, over time, degrade the preparedness of future SAD 75 student populations," the letter said.

The letter claims school closure "may harm the academic readiness of students ages 5-10, who will endure unacceptably long bus rides, approximately 11 miles from the present school location."

It also states that closing West Harpswell would extract WHS students from their community and conflict with the 2005 Harpswell Comprehensive Plan, which mandates two community schools on the respective town peninsulas. "The present operation of the West Harpswell School is important for abating the geographic and social isolation of West Harpswell students," the letter said.

Wilhelm said on Tuesday that he had not seen the letter and would therefore not comment on it.

The superintendent added that deciding to close West Harpswell School would be a two-step process, requiring approval of the SAD 75 board and ratification by a referendum of Harpswell voters.

"If the town of Harpswell votes to keep (the school) open after the School Board votes to close it," Wilhelm said, "then the town of Harpswell would be responsible for providing the school district with the savings that (the district) would have realized had it been closed."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.