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Harpswell Selectmen urge commissioner to reject school closure cost projection

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Harpswell Selectmen urge commissioner to reject school closure cost projection

HARPSWELL — Citing school department errors in projected costs, the Board of Selectmen has sent a letter on Nov. 5 to Maine Education Commissioner Angela Faherty asking the state not to approve the current amount of $195,962.43 to keep the West Harpswell School open in the 2011-2012 school year.

While townspeople want to see the school remain open, the selectmen are questioning the method School Administrative District 75 used to arrive at its cost estimate.

Selectmen cited an "overstated" amount of more than $22,000 for teacher salaries, a mistake acknowledged by SAD 75 officials. Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, a member of the School Closure Cost Review Team, said an amendment to the cost estimate received Oct. 25 fixed a more than $4,000 error related to fuel costs.

"The fuel line charge, which was charged to West Harpswell School, ended up being another school," she said. "But we had never really resolved the teacher salary line."

Eiane said the SCCRT met to discuss the amendments the morning after they were received.

"We did not believe the amount was correctly stated," she said. "There is a specific issue with the teachers line for salaries."

Eiane said the estimate made by the school department will be assessed to Harpswell taxpayers and paid to SAD 75.

"That $195,963.43, we think that needs to be revised," she said.

Attached to the letter sent to Faherty was a report made by the SCCRT. The report offered comments to the education commissioner regarding the process, in addition to outlining work that was done by the team.

"The other things are more general in nature," Eiane said.

One issue brought up by the SCCRT is the length of time a town has to respond — currently 10 days. The reports notes the SCCRT has "been challenged to review the district's figures in a relatively short period of time, and believed the 10-day comment period should be lengthened in order to provide adequate time for the municipal review process."

Eiane said towns that have not dealt with closure of a school will be pressed within the 10-day time frame.

"If you are a town that's never had to address this before, 10 days is not enough," she said.

Other issues brought up by the SCCRT included inconsistency in interpretation of regulations from year to year. Specifically, that "SAD 75 reported that it received new guidance from the (Department of Education) in preparing this year's cost data. The change in interpretation of the regulations created inconsistencies from year to year, making comparisons and projections difficult."

The review team questioned if one-time expenses should be included in the calculations as well as questioning prepaid items, using fuel purchases as an example. The review team noted there could be an increase in costs if the school is closed.

Faherty has up to 10 days to respond to the Board of Selectmen's letter, Eiane said.

Selectmen also noted in the letter there may be an issue with the way last year's total was estimated.

"Our comments are limited to the $195,963.43 estimated figure for base year 2009-2010. If, however, you are accepting comments on errors in last year's estimated figure of $219,030.60, which was approved by the Commissioner, we would like to be advised," the letter states.

The SCCRT declined to comment to the education commissioner regarding changes to last year's estimate, stating "with respect to any changes that may call into question the estimated cost savings of the prior year, the SCCRT takes no position at this time."

Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or sgrinnell@theforecaster.net