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Vote on closing of Harpswell school set for March Town Meeting

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Vote on closing of Harpswell school set for March Town Meeting

TOPSHAM — Harpswell voters will decide at Town Meeting in March whether to close the West Harpswell School.

The School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors voted unanimously Dec. 10 to schedule the referendum after the Maine Department of Education approved the board's reapplication to close the school.

“I think it's probably in the best interest of getting a full vote on this to hold the referendum at the March Harpswell Town Meeting,” SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said.

The vote will be conducted by secret ballot.

Depending on the vote, school administrators will know before the next budget process is over whether it will be supporting two Harpswell schools or one, Wilhelm explained. He added that having the vote at Town Meeting will be less expensive than scheduling a special referendum.

In June the board voted 13-1 to close the school and move its students to the Harpswell Islands School.

If Harpswell residents opt to keep the school open, the town will have to reimburse SAD 75 for lost cost savings, which would also require authorization from Town Meeting.

SAD 75 has determined a savings of $219,000, based on an analysis of fiscal 2009 expenses.

Following the district's initial application submission to the state, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said she could not approve its “lack of need” report until it addressed two issues: the district's offer of school choice and its impact on enrollment, and the increase in transportation costs that the closure of the school is expected to trigger.

“Although I would like to have (the vote) sooner versus later, because I think it's a topic that needs to have closure one way or the other, so people can move on, I do believe it would be appropriate to have the referendum vote go at Town Meeting,” said Dee Carrier, a representative of Harpswell on the board.

The School Board's vote to close West Harpswell School was largely prompted by declining enrollments. The lack of need report states that the district could better meet Harpswell children's needs if the students are in a single, larger school.

Still, those opposed to the shutdown say it will take young children from their familiar West Harpswell School community during the day, and subject them to longer bus rides to the Harpswell Islands School.

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