Harpswell changes Town Meeting to March 20 to accommodate SAD 75 vote

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HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen voted Jan. 21 to change Town Meeting from March 13 to March 20.

The vote follows a recent decision by School Administrative District 75 to schedule a March 9 referendum on the closing of the West Harpswell School.

The move by selectmen will allow the town clerk to prepare for two elections. It also pushes back the deadline for nomination papers to Feb. 3.

The school closure referendum was originally planned for March 13, the original Town Meeting date. But SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said Harpswell could not logistically handle a referendum on the 12th and its Town Meeting on the 13th.

Although the School Board voted to close the West Harpswell School and move its students to the larger Harpswell Islands School, residents can vote to keep the school open at the referendum. If they do, the town would ultimately have to pay SAD 75 the cost savings that would have been created by closing the school, which would require separate Town Meeting authorization.

The school district says the savings will be $219,000. That claim is being contested by the Friends for Harpswell Education, a group that recently sued SAD 75 and the state Department of Education in an effort to halt the referendum and school closure.

The opposition group claims the district’s figures are misleading and amount to a cost shift if the town votes to keep the school open. It says the savings would be closer to $128,000, and it disputes the district’s claim of salary savings.

Harpswell selectmen previously mulled joining the opposition group’s legal argument. However, they opted not to after consulting the Maine Municipal Association and the town attorney.

SAD 75 has cited declining enrollment at West Harpswell School, and an improved ability to meet those students’ needs at a larger school, as reasons to close the school.

West Harpswell School currently has 73 students, while Harpswell Island School has 93.

Still, opponents argue that closing the school will remove young children from their familiar West Harpswell School community during the day, and subject them to longer bus rides to the Harpswell Islands School.

If the referendum survives the legal challenge, polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at three locations on March 9: Merriconeag Grange at 529 Harpswell Neck Road, Cundy’s Harbor Community Building at 837 Cundy’s Harbor Road and the Orr’s Island Community Building, 1594 Harpswell Islands Road.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]