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Group sues to prevent closing of West Harpswell School

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Group sues to prevent closing of West Harpswell School

HARPSWELL — A group fighting to prevent the closing of West Harpswell School is taking its case to court.

Friends for Harpswell Education on Monday filed a lawsuit against state Education Commission Susan Gendron and School Administrative District 75, disputing the district's rationale for closing the school on Harpswell Neck and Gendron's subsequent approval of the decision.

"It's surreal and ridiculous that (Gendron) would approve (the district's) reasoning without seriously questioning these incorrect and misleading claims," said Robert McIntyre, one of those who sued.

"As soon as you start poking at the reason for their decision, that's when it completely falls apart," McIntyre added.

In its complaint filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, the group argues that SAD 75 is overstating the cost savings from closing the school. 

SAD 75 has proposed closing the building because of declining enrollment. It says doing so would save more than $219,000.

But the opponents claim those savings are closer to $128,000 and would effectively result in a cost shift to the town of Harpswell, especially if the town decides to keep the school open or retain ownership of the building.

The group wants the court to either halt a town-wide referendum that would ask Harpswell voters if they want to close the school, reverse SAD 75's decision to close the school or force Gendron to review the district's savings calculations.

The referendum is scheduled for Town Meeting on March 13.

The group has previously argued that the school district is trying to close what its members say is one of Cumberland County's best-performing elementary schools and one of the top 10 percent in the state.

Additionally, it says closing the school would impose undue hardship on West Harpswell parents, who would be forced to bus their children to Harpswell Islands School, the town's other elementary school.

In October, Jeffrey Slocum, the group's chairman, said Harpswell's splintered geography would adversely affect the students' education and parent involvement, two factors that Slocum said feed West Harpswell School's high performance.

"You're taking what some might call the flagship school in the district and shutting it down," Slocum said. "That sounds like education as a business with profit being the bottom line."

"The proposal may make dollars," he added, "but it doesn't make sense."

The town's Board of Selectmen has mulled joining the group in a legal argument. It recently sought an opinion from the Maine Municipal Association to see if there is a basis to challenge SAD 75's rationale.

Chairman Jim Henderson said Tuesday that selectmen were advised by the town attorney not to pursue a legal challenge. However, the board on Monday submitted a letter to Gendron disputing the district's claim that it would save half of a principal's position.

Under the district's plan, the principal would be moved to Harpswell Island School to become a full-time principal at the exact same salary, which the town argues, would result in minimal, or no, savings.

In its letter to Gendron, the board asked the commissioner to review the district's savings calculation so that voters at Town Meeting have an accurate figure when considering if it should close West Harpswell School.

The group also disputes the district's salary savings claim, saying it's one of many falsehoods SAD 75 has put forward to persuade voters to close the school.

In making its case to the state, SAD 75 has argued closing West Harpswell School would give Harpswell one elementary school comparable in size to other schools in the district. 

The school currently has 73 students, while Harpswell Island School has 93.

In a letter to Gendron, the district also said that bus ride times for West Harpswell students would increase by an average of 20 minutes – a claim the Friends for Harpswell education has previously refuted.

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