Harpswell narrowly votes to stay in SAD 75

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HARPSWELL — Residents on Tuesday defeated a proposal that would have initiated the process to withdraw from School Administrative District 75.

The referendum failed by 25 votes, 475-450.

Two other questions on the ballot, on Eagle Island shore-land zoning and an environmental assessment of West Harpswell School, passed by overwhelming margins.

The SAD 75 question asked voters if they would favor filing a petition for withdrawal with the School Board and the state education commissioner, and authorize the town to spend $55,000 to create a plan detailing how the town would provide for the education of the 494 Harpswell students enrolled in SAD 75.

In order to actually withdrawal from the school district, the commissioner would have had to sign off on the plan, and then, after a public hearing, the town would have had to approve withdrawal by a two-thirds vote.

The article was opposed by Selectmen Alison Hawkes and Elinor Multer, and supported by Selectman Jim Henderson.

Although the question was narrowly defeated town-wide, it passed overwhelmingly among Harpswell Neck and Mountain Road voters. The Merriconeag Grange on Harpswell Neck reported 308 votes for and 172 against.

In other parts of town, most voters did not want to initiate the process. The Orr’s Island School station reported 63 votes for and 131 against the question, and the Cundy’s Harbor community building reported 79 yes and 172 no.

The geographical distribution of the votes mirrored February’s special referendum on closing West Harpswell School. A large majority of voters from Mountain Road and Harpswell Neck elected to keep the school open. The reverse was true in the Orr’s and Bailey Island and Cundy’s Harbor voting districts.

Among those who voted against initiating the withdrawal process, many said they were satisfied with the quality of education in the district.

Claire Marshall said she attended Mt. Ararat High School, and was happy with the sense of community she felt at the school. She also attended Brunswick High School for a year, and said she was “not well integrated” there.

Jill Rose, whose children attend SAD 75 schools, said she was also pleased with Mt. Ararat, and worried that residents who wanted to withdraw were concerned more about their pocketbooks and less about providing the best education for Harpswell children.

Many residents who favored withdrawal said the town is paying too much per pupil in SAD 75, and expressed displeasure with the district’s administration.

“Kids should be able to go wherever they want, at a cheaper rate,” Robert Bartley said.

Luci Timblin said the town has higher taxes and fewer rights than if it were its own district and paid to tuition to send its students to SAD 75 or another district.

“I don’t like the way SAD 75 treats the town,” Timblin said, adding that the district’s decision to close the West Harpswell School influenced her decision to support the withdrawal process.

SAD 75 Superintendant Mike Wilhelm was pleased to hear the result of the vote.

“I’m pleased because I don’t believe that the withdrawal of Harpswell from the system was in the best interest of the students in Harpswell,” he said Wednesday.

School Board member Joanne Rogers also opposed withdrawal, and said she hopes “those who have looked for a different outcome will listen more carefully to what happens at the board level and how their representatives from Harpswell do represent all the children in the district, but also the constituents from their town.”

Robert McIntyre, who spearheaded the withdrawal campaign, had mixed emotions.

“I’m happy that it was close, but realizing that it’s close makes it all the more frustrating to not have done a more comprehensive campaign,” he said Wednesday. “Obviously we have to do it again next year with more preparation, for sure. A little public education done over a more extended period of time strikes me as the correct approach.”

Eagle Island, school assessment

Two other questions asked voters if they would enact amendments to shore-land zoning on Eagle Island to allow construction of a visitor’s center, and appropriate $2,400 for an environmental assessment of West Harpswell School, would would assist with the reuse process.

Article 3, the zoning question, won 776-133, and Article 4, the West Harpswell School question, was approved 678-241.

Of the town’s 4,039 registered voters, about 23 percent, or 929, cast votes in Tuesday’s election.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.