SAD 75 board votes again to close West Harpswell School

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TOPSHAM — The School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors has again decided to close the West Harpswell School.

The School Board voted 12-2 on June 10, with Jane Meisenbach of Harpswell and Claudia Beckwith of Topsham opposed. The decision would close the school at the end of the next school year, as recommended by the Comprehensive Strategic Planning Committee.

The board first voted last June to close the school and move students to the larger Harpswell Islands School; Meisenbach cast the lone dissenting vote at that time. The district cited declining enrollment at West Harpswell School and an increased ability to meet those students’ needs at a larger school, as reasons to close it.

But Harpswell residents in March voted 906-827 against the closing and consequently had to pay SAD 75 the $219,000 the district determined it would have saved by shutting the school.

The process this time will be the same.

SAD 75 must again file a statement of need with the state Department of Education to determine next year’s cost of keeping the West Harpswell School open. An audit should be complete in September.

“I think consolidating the two schools increases the capacity of the district in this time of scarce resources to provide the kinds of attention and resources that are needed to prepare kids for the 21st century,” SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said Monday.

Wilhelm noted that enrollment at the West Harpswell School has continued to decline, and that this year’s enrollment of about 73 is projected to drop to about 61 next year. Meanwhile, enrollment at Harpswell Islands School is about 100 and anticipated to remain that way next year, Wilhelm said.

In keeping both schools open, he said, “you’d actually be funding two schools in Harpswell, the size of which together is less than any other elementary school in the district. … It becomes more and more difficult to provide the kind of resources that are needed in such small schools, without having those resources be equitable across the district.”

Linda Hall, who defeated Harpswell incumbent Dorothy Carrier in the School Board election on June 8, said she would like the school district to look at alternatives.

“It doesn’t seem that they’ve really done that,” said Hall, a resident of the Harpswell Neck area where the school is located. Her three-year term on the board does not begin until July 1.

She said about 90 percent of the parents of West Harpswell School students are satisfied with the quality of education there.

“It’s a very successful school,” she said.

Hall noted that Harpswell’s two schools are conveniently located for the two sides of the town, but that neither school is well located for the other side.

“I would be just as concerned if the Harpswell Islands School was going to be closed,” she said, adding that she advocates the town and School Board looking into having a more centrally located school.

Ann Standridge, co-chairwoman of the Friends for Harpswell Education group that has fought to keep the school open, said on Tuesday that she was not surprised by the School Board’s vote.

“My feeling is that all along the board has been unwilling to listen,” the Harpswell Neck resident said. “ … I think their mind has been made up for a long time. I am not pleased, of course, that they are rushing into a vote so early. We just voted three months ago to keep the school open, and so I think in effect what they’re doing is just nullifying (the decision) in their own mind, saying that our vote to keep the school open doesn’t matter to them. They’re not respecting the feelings of the people of Harpswell at all.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected].

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.