TOPSHAM — The closure of West Harpswell School would have saved School Administrative District 75 about $232,000 last year, based on an analysis of fiscal 2009 expenses, Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said last week.
SAD 75 has sent the Maine Department of Transportation an application to close the school that includes the analysis and a “lack of need” report, a document that attempts to justify the School Board’s 13-1 vote in June to close the school and move its students to the Harpswell Islands School.
Declining enrollment at the school was a large factor behind the board’s decision; the lack of need report states that West Harpswell started the school year with 74 students, while Harpswell Islands had 97; those numbers were 124 and 222, respectively, for the 1998-1999 school year.
“The decrease in enrollments is due to three factors,” the report states. “High real-estate prices in Harpswell discourage young families of moderate income from considering Harpswell as a place of residence. The population demographic statewide is in decline. The closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station is removing both Navy and civilian employment opportunities from the area.”
The report also states that the district could better meet the needs of Harpswell children if the students were in a larger school. It says human resources are now split between the two elementary schools, which results in “limited weekly access” to technology, social work support services, guidance and exploratory teachers, and that “the presence of these resources will be more accessible to students and teachers as they spend a greater amount of time in the one building.”
Opponents of the closure argue that it will take young children out of the West Harpswell School community with which they are familiar, and relegate them to longer bus rides to the Harpswell Islands School.
But the report says transportation times for some West Harpswell students will increase up to 18 minutes, while for others the time will be the same or possibly decrease.
“Additional total miles traveled by buses is minimal due to the fact that all elementary buses return to the bus garage in Topsham after their runs, and the route to the Harpswell Islands School from South Harpswell is, for the most part, in the direction of the bus garage and would be traveled regardless of the school closing,” according to the document.
The report also states that while the cost savings are those realized based on the fiscal 2009 audit, savings will continue in the form of ongoing reductions in grounds and building maintenance and eventually fewer capital needs, such as well and septic upgrades and roof and window replacements.
Although the board has made its decision, the district is required to give Harpswell residents a referendum vote on the matter. If residents vote to keep the school open, the town would be responsible for providing SAD 75 the financial savings – about $232,000 – that the district would have realized had the school been closed and consolidated with the Harpswell Islands School.
Wilhelm said the application to DOE is primarily to confirm the district’s cost-savings analysis with the state.
“We can’t go to referendum without having a number for the Harpswell residents to vote on,” he said. “And it has to be a number that meets the criteria as established by the state.”
The state must also determine that the district’s lack-of-need report meets the criteria to close the school, Wilhelm added.
The superintendent said the district has yet to establish a referendum date. The board will discuss the matter at its meeting on Thursday, Nov. 8, which will begin at West Harpswell School at 6:30 p.m.
The board also voted at its last meeting that the district’s name will remain SAD 75, as opposed to Regional School Unit 75. Wilhelm said he recently learned that districts that did not merge under the statewide consolidation law were not required to change their names, which saves SAD 75 the expense of rebadging its vehicle fleet.
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.