Harpswell residents question SAD 75 data on school closing

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HARPSWELL — Fewer than two dozen people attended a special meeting Monday night for public comment on how much School Administrative District 75 says it will cost to keep West Harpswell School open. 

Even fewer had anything to say.

Those who did agreed on several points for the Board of Selectmen to raise to the Department of Education, including the fluctuation of cost estimates and school enrollment numbers.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said five people were appointed to the school cost closure review team, which was charged with reviewing closure reports and financial impacts. She said initial estimates of more than $200,000 have been reduced to just under $197,000 due to a new interpretation of the principal’s position and averaging health-care costs, among other things.

Selectmen had until Friday, Nov. 5, to comment on the cost analysis, Eiane said.

She noted there is still some question about teachers’ summer pay due to two answers received on different days, one of which had not been reviewed by the team as a whole at the time of the meeting Monday.

Resident Robert McIntyre noted some rooms at Harpswell Island School are not available for instructional purposes, such as the cafeteria.

“If Harpswell Island School were to (use those rooms as classrooms), SAD 75 would not be providing equitable resources,” he said.

McIntyre noted there is a push for SAD 75 to establish a 4-year-old educational program through grant funding and said closing West Harpswell School is “a simple absurdity,” considering the pre-kindergarten program already established at WHS. He said there are 20 children enrolled in the program and a waiting list.

He noted some other inconsistencies with the cost estimates, including what he called a “double charge” for heating oil, the estimate for which he said was based on a district-wide bulk purchase of heating oil on the last fiscal day of the year.

He suggested selectmen request a refund of the principal’s salary, too, and said he has a letter from former Education Commissioner Susan Gendron sharing his opinion regarding the refund. McIntyre suggested written instructions from the state, rather than relying on verbal agreements to avoid confusion.

“Are you suggesting we are not getting the truth from SAD 75?” Selectman Elinor Multer asked.

McIntyre responded, “It is good to have things in writing.”

Leon Ogrodnick said there have been “significant reductions” and wondered how the calculations were being made by the school district.

“When this whole thing started out last year, we were at $239,000,” he said. “We’re now down to $195,000 and there’s still outstanding questions.”

Other residents argued there is enough room at Harpswell Island School to house all Harpswell students.

“There’s certainly plenty of room with both schools combined and certainly room to grow,” Joanne Rogers said, adding maximum class sizes are about 25 students.

Kay Ogrodnick said more than two-thirds of the school budget goes to SAD 75.

“At Town Meeting, we cuss and discuss in great detail that remaining third,” she said, adding the loss of one school for the reduction of less than $200,000 is “not much of a bargain.”

Ogrodnick noted the money saved will not benefit Harpswell directly, it will benefit SAD 75. She warned reopening the school would not be easy if it is closed.

Kara Douglas questioned documentation of “educational theory and practice” noted in the lack-of-need letter from SAD 75 to the town.

Hannah Beattie questioned when the public will be allowed to address the School board and how to find out how decisions are made. Selectman James Henderson said all board meetings are open to the public, but noted there have been issues with people realizing there is a meeting happening, a problem he said has improved during the past eight months.

Beattie said she has heard teachers have moved to Mt. Ararat Middle School for fear of losing seniority if WHS is closed.

“Change like that hurts our kids,” she said. “It’s hard when it feels like you’re continually losing. It’s not all about the school, it’s about the children’s education.”

She suggested the school district “stop looking at just numbers” and consider the children involved.

Elizabeth Davis founded a preschool program a few years ago and said one pilot program in one town will not be enough of an example for the entire school district.

“We have a lot of talent in town and I’m not convinced we wouldn’t be able to educate students without the help of the district,” Davis said. “There may really be a better way to do this.”

Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 and sgrinnell@theforecaster.net

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