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Proposed charter school seeks use of West Harpswell School

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Proposed charter school seeks use of West Harpswell School

HARPSWELL — Representatives of Harpswell Coastal Academy, who are expected to submit their charter application to the state by the end of the month, hope to use the former West Harpswell School building starting in fall 2013.

But as discussed at an Oct. 18 Board of Selectman meeting, the logistics for acquiring a lease may complicate the schedule sought by the proposed charter school.

Voters approved closing West Harpswell School in February 2011. The building hasn't been used for classes since the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

John D'Anieri, a consultant for the proposed school, said selectmen can't sign a lease that begins in one fiscal year and ends in another. "Our need for a lease would ideally begin June of 2013 and run through June of 2014 for our first year, and that would run into another fiscal year," he said.

"So when we talked, it was unlikely that we would be able to secure anything close to a multi-year lease without either a Town Meeting or a referendum," D'Anieri continued, "and our board is pretty clear that we need to secure space at least for our first year, so when (we receive approval in January) we're able to say, at that point, we have space secured."

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said she and the selectmen will meet with the town attourney to determine if there's any kind of agreement that can be reached without taking the measure to a referendum or the annual Town Meeting.

"They want a sense of what they can legally do to meet this time frame to start the charter school," Eiane said.

Joe Grady, chairman of the Harpswell Coastal Academy board, said he is willing to take the measure to a referendum, but he's afraid it would become a referendum on the concept of a charter school – a controversial subject in Maine – and not simply the use of the building.

"The trepidation from our side is that we don't want a vote on the use of the building to be a referendum on the school. That's our concern," Grady said. "... But I think our board would be certainly willing to go through the process and not shy away from that to the point where we walk away from the possibility. I think we would like to investigate the possibility as far as we can."

Responding to the charter school chairman's concerns, Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer said "it would be up to you to prove (the charter school) would be beneficial in whatever way you choose."

Grady said the majority of feedback for Harpswell Coastal Academy has been positive. "And it's become increasingly clear that our group is determined to bring our vision to fruition," he said.

The charter school chairman said the school plans to start with grades 6 and 9, and eventually blossom to grades 6-12.

"The reason behind that is culturally it sets a tone and allows the school to grow in a way that it has a significant impact on the culture of the school and learning," Grady said.

According to the charter school's intent to submit an application, the projected enrollment for the first year is 270 pupils.

Grady said that while the targeted demographic will be Harpswell families, he hopes the school will attract families who live as far away as Durham, Pownal and Bowdoinham.

The charter school will provide a "rigorous, personalized, personalized, project-based education" to students in the Mid-Coast area, according to the document. If approved by the state, the school would include natural and marine resources, farms and forests and sustainable entrepreneurship in its curriculum.

Grady said his board has raised $50,000 through anonymous donations for the school's start-up budget. He said a subcommittee is working on building a capital campaign strategy.

Grady said the state's decision on the school's application is expected by the end of January 2013.

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.