SAD 75 rejects Harpswell request for equal time on school closure

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TOPSHAM — The School Administrative District 75 board voted 12-1 on Jan. 13 to not include an alternative perspective in literature explaining the proposed closure of West Harpswell School.

The Harpswell Board of Selectmen had asked the School Board to include other viewpoints. But SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm maintained last week that the district was not required to publicize any views but its own, and the district’s attorney, Peter Lowe, supported that opinion at the board’s Jan. 13 meeting.

Lowe said there is no question that the district has the right to express its views and advocate for them. He also noted that the district has no legal obligation to provide space for opposing views.

“If you open the door and allow equal time or space in your publications … you can’t do that selectively,” Lowe said. “You’re creating what’s called a public forum. And when you create a public forum, you as a district don’t then have the authority … (to) decide what is a viewpoint that is acceptable in your communications, or what’s unacceptable.”

He added that “the type of request that says, ‘let one very legitimate, appropriate, passionate group have their voice at the same time as the district is expressing its voice’ sounds, frankly, deceptively simple; who could argue against such a notion? But this legal issue of opening up your forum has many, many unintended consequences.”

Joanne Rogers, a Harpswell representative on the board, made the motion denying the selectmen’s request. Linda Hall, also from Harpswell, cast the only vote in opposition.

Hall said it was appropriate for the School Board to explain its decision to close West Harpswell School, but said that decision was made in June, and that it would have been appropriate at that time for the district to give any information it wished to Harpswell residents.

She added that the decision is now in the hands of Harpswell voters, and that sending a flier at this point “feels, or has the sense of a feeling, of trying to influence a vote.”

Kim Totten, who represents Bowdoin on the School Board, noted that “it’s our obligation to advocate for what we believe in. … I feel that the board made the decision for the kids, and we’re trying to educate and inform the people of Harpswell why we came to that decision.”

Jane Scease, a Topsham representative on the School Board, said “it seems to me just very inconsistent for us to use the resources of the district to put out information … that we don’t agree with, as far as making a determination about whether to consolidate the schools.”

The School Board voted last June, for the second year in a row, to close West Harpswell School. Declining enrollments and the ability to serve a greater number of students in one building are reasons cited by supporters of the closure for moving the West Harpswell School students to the larger Harpswell Islands School.

Harpswell residents voted 906-827 last March not to close the school and consequently had to pay the school district $219,000 – the cost to keep the school open another year. Given the School Board’s second vote to close the school, a referendum will be held on Feb. 1 for Harpswell residents to again decide the school’s fate.

Fliers explaining the School Board’s decision to close the school are expected to be distributed before the referendum vote.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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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.