Harpswell residents criticize school consolidation option

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HARPSWELL — There was little support expressed for consolidating the town’s two schools Wednesday at a Board of Selectmen public hearing.

The meeting followed the completion on Monday of a finding of fact by the Strategic Planning Action Team of School Administrative District 75 on the possibility of closing West Harpswell School and moving its students to the larger Harpswell Islands School.

On Thursday, the SAD 75 Board of Directors was scheduled to discuss the team’s work. The meeting was moved from Room 201 at Mt. Ararat High School to the school commons to support a potentially large audience.

SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm has said a merger and other reorganization strategies would be intended to provide all SAD 75 students equal access to educational resources. But opponents have criticized moving West Harpswell elementary students out of their community and the increased time those children would spend on the bus on the way to their new school. They’ve also said there has been a lack of information about cost savings that would actually be generated.

Alison Hawkes, one of the few who spoke in support of a merger, said she did not arrive at her decision easily.

“Since we were informed of the possibility of the closure of WHS, I have been back and forth so many times,” she said. “I was hesitant to the idea because of the understandable objection of the majority of the parents from West Harpswell.”

Hawkes said she “left hurt and angry from both” of two previous meetings on consolidation, and that parents had belittled the students, teachers and parents of Harpswell Islands School.

“Here we are trying to teach our kids to play well with others, and as adults we can’t even model that for our children,” she said, adding that “change can be a great thing if the people behind it work together as a team.”

Hawkes argued that “it’s long overdue to bring all of Harpswell together. We all share the same desire to have well-educated, well-rounded kids. I look forward to the day that we can take all the great things from both schools and create one awesome school. Now it’s time to sit at the table together and make sure that happens.”

Michelle Saunders, who has two children at Harpswell Islands, said an anonymous survey on consolidation went out to that school’s parents last week. Out of 55 responses, 46 favored consolidation, four did not and five were not sure, Saunders reported.

Donna Frisoli said she supports both schools and wants to see them both stay open. “I think we need schools on both sides of town,” Frisoli said, suggesting that if Harpswell Islands becomes too big for its falling population, perhaps some of its space could be used for town recreational purposes.

Ruth Weeks said the West Harpswell School “is the thing that we all have in common” on that side of town, “and I tell you, it’s not nice to live in a neighborhood without children.”
She suggested that if the school is closed, families with children will not want to buy property in that area of town.

David I. Chipman said he has volunteered at both schools and done all he can to make them “as good as they can be,” but pointed out that two separate communities are involved with this issue.

“I hear a lot of people saying … ‘we need to get together, finally,'” he said. “There’s 250 years of history behind this, and it’s not going to happen instantly. We had a terrible falling out over LNG, and we’re still trying to heal from that. And closing the school on the other side is not a healing move … there will be people who will never forget that. That’s not going to be something that brings the community together. … I wish I was naive enough to say yes, this will fix it, and we can put that responsibility on our kids to do that.”

Chipman said he co-founded a housing trust that is negotiating to build 15 homes on Harpswell Neck that working people can afford.

“All indications show that the families that will be living in these homes have kids,” he explained, adding that West Harpswell School is seeing a population increase next year, and that “closing that school will just really undermine all of our efforts to make Harpswell a diverse and viable community.”

Ruth Smith pointed out that while a nearly $200,000 savings has been cited in the event of school closure, that amount does not account for items such as the increased cost of transportation and the expense of upgrading Harpswell Islands to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

“I just really wish that we had some kind of an estimate of what those costs were,” she said.

Closing the school would require two steps: approval of the SAD 75 board and ratification by a referendum of Harpswell voters. If the board votes to close the school and Harpswell opts to keep it open, the town would be responsible for providing the school district with the savings the district would have realized if the school had been closed, according to Wilhelm.

Consolidation would not occur until the 2010-2011 school year, at the earliest.

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

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.