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Harpswell votes to keep West Harpswell School open

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Harpswell votes to keep West Harpswell School open

HARPSWELL — Voters on Tuesday narrowly rejected the school district's proposal to close West Harpswell School.

The decision means the town will absorb $219,000 to keep the building open next school year.

The town voted 906-827 against the closure, a 4 percent margin that town officials attributed to a strong turnout in West Harpswell.

Ballots were cast at three polling places. At Merriconeag Grange Hall in West Harpswell, voters said no to school closure 641-176.

The outcome means the approximately 70 students who attend the school will go back next year, rather than attend Harpswell Islands School.

It also means Harpswell residents will pay $219,000 to keep the school open next year – the amount the School Administrative District 75 School Board said would have been saved by closing the school.

Those savings are being disputed in court by a community group fighting to keep the school open.

Jeffrey Slocum, a spokesman for the Friends of Harpswell Education, would not comment on the status of the lawsuit on Wednesday. However, Slocum said he was pleased residents "came together to support education for the long term."

Although the vote appeared split among geographic lines, Slocum said the outcome would allow both sides to come together.

During the campaign to keep West Harpswell School open, parents sometimes voiced concerns that their children would receive an inferior education at Harpswell Islands School.

"Instead of consolidation – which wouldn't have worked – now we can have collaboration between (West Harpswell School and Harpswell Islands School)," Slocum said. 

"There's been a huge turnaround at (Harpswell Islands), they're doing great over there," he added.

Meanwhile, it's not clear if SAD 75 will attempt to close the school again after the 2010-2011 school year, or what happens if it doesn't.

Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said Wednesday that he believes Harpswell would have to vote again next year to keep the school open.

But Slocum and Board of Selectmen Chairman James Henderson have a different understanding. They said the town would vote next year only if SAD 75 attempts to close the school again, because the $219,000 it will now pay the district is based on previous savings assessments – assessments that will most likely change, and potentially decline.

Those assessments, Henderson said, were also made to prove the district's case for closing the school.

"It's the district's responsibility to justify the savings and what the town should pay to keep the school open," Slocum said.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the matter is a legal issue and declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit by the Friends for Harpswell Education.

Meanwhile, Wilhelm declined to say whether the district will try to close West Harpswell in the future.

"If the town had continually chosen to keep the school open and there was some kind of baby boom, then perhaps (the district) would consider keeping it open," he said. "But I don't see that baby boom happening."

"The board's reasons for closing the school are not the same reasons for the town keeping it open," Wilhelm added.

Nonetheless, Henderson said, Tuesday's vote gives school-closure opponents a year to convince the district not to try again.

"We kept it open for one year," Henderson said. "Now we can make a better case for keeping it open long term."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

Photo: Paul Cunningham
Scott and Julie Lemieux, with their daughter Kelsey, vote Tuesday at Merriconeag Grange on the future of West Harpswell School. Lemieux said Kelsey will begin kindergarten this fall and he hoped it would be at West Harpswell.