Harpswell votes to close West Harpswell School

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HARPSWELL — Residents on Tuesday OK’d a School Administrative District 75 plan to close the West Harpswell School.

The 834 to 753 decision means this school year will be the last for the school. In September, all Harpswell elementary students will attend the consolidated Harpswell Islands School.

SAD 75 Superintendent Michael Wilhelm on Wednesday said he was surprised, but pleased by the vote.

“I think the voters decided it was in the best interests of the students of Harpswell to be consolidated into one school,” he said.

Wilhelm said the School Board did a better job of getting out information to Harpswell residents this year, something he believes influenced the vote.

Supporters of keeping the school open were disappointed by the result.

“I think it’s a horrible waste, it’s very unfortunate,” said Robert McIntyre, a vocal critic of the school district proposal.

McIntyre said he suspected that some Harpswell voters threw in the towel and “decided the big organization with resources would get what they wanted eventually,” so they voted to close the school.

Anne Standrich, spokeswoman for Friends of Harpswell Education, said she knew the vote was going to be close, but was disappointed in how it turned out. She said her group would wait a few days before meeting to decide what to do next.

In the meantime, Standrich said she supports a petition submitted to the town clerk last Thursday asking the Board of Selectmen to form a committee to study the advantages and disadvantages of withdrawing from SAD 75.

At press time, the signatures were still being verified by the town clerk, Rosalind Knight.

While the school closure was ultimately about education in Harpswell, the issue also came to represent community identity and independence.

“The town is dispersed geographically, but it’s still about retaining control of our own community,” said Jim Henderson, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Jeff Smith, a Harpswell resident, echoed this sentiment on Tuesday after casting his vote to keep the school open. He said the issue was about “trying to maintain the town’s independence” from SAD 75, which he believes does not have Harpswell’s best interests in mind.

Harpswell resident Kim Hughes was more direct. Keeping the school open is “the only way a community can survive,” she said.

But other residents said they believe closing the school will bring the town closer together.

Jason Morin has two children at Harpswell Island School, and voted to close West Harpswell School. He said the town is “one community and hopefully (closing the school) would bring more unity to the community once people get used to the idea.”

Wilhelm said the issue of community identity complicated the school closure proposal.

“If it were just about the kids, it wouldn’t have impacted such a large cross-section of the community,” he said. “It would have been more of a question for parents of the kids in the school.”

A total of 1,587 people, or 38 percent of all registered voters, cast their ballots in Tuesday’s referendum. Voters in the Mainland, or Harpswell Neck and Mountain Road, precinct turned out in the greatest numbers, casting just over half of all votes. They also voted by a large majority, 592 to 241, to keep West Harpswell School, which lies in their precinct, open.

There was less support for keeping the West Harpswell School open in other parts of the town. In the Cundy’s Harbor and Great Island precinct, 88 people voted to keep the school open, while 311 wanted it closed. On Orr’s Island and Bailey Island, the numbers were 73 votes for the school to stay open and 282 in favor of closure.

Last year, Harpswell residents voted 906-827 to keep the school open.

The school saga began nearly 2 1/2 years ago when the School Board voted to close West Harpswell School. Harpswell residents voted to keep it open last March, and paid the school district $219,000, the amount SAD 75 would have saved by closing the school.

 Keeping the school open for the 2011-2012 school year would have cost Harpswell taxpayers $190,955.

Now that the votes are tallied, Wilhelm said the School Board would like to get together with the parent teacher organizations of both schools in the next few weeks to “develop a mission for the (combined) school.”

The board will soon begin to search for a principal for the consolidated Harpswell Island School, he said, and work out the logistics of the move.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements

Ashley Braley of Harpswell takes a ballot from poll volunteer Gertrude Knight on Tuesday morning at Merriconeag Grange. Voters turned out early and in large numbers due to heavy snowfall and a controversial topic: SAD 75’s proposal to close West Harpswell School.Ellen Proctor of Harpswell drops her ballot in the box on Tuesday morning at the Grange as volunteer Joyce Thomas, left, monitors the room.