SAD 75 schedules referendum on Harpswell school closing for March 9

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TOPSHAM — The School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors voted 12-1 Jan. 14 to reschedule a referendum on the proposed closing of West Harpswell School to Tuesday, March 9.

Jane Meisenbach, who cast the dissenting vote, was also the only board member to vote last June against closing the school.

The board also voted almost unanimously last week to approve the warrant for the referendum. Meisenbach abstained.

Board member Jane Scease was absent from the meeting.

The board had originally planned the referendum for the Saturday, March 13, Harpswell Town Meeting, and then was due last week to reschedule to the day before. But, SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said, “the town did not feel that it could logistically handle a referendum on the 12th and its Town Meeting on the 13th. So they wanted it further away from the March 13 date.”

Meanwhile, the Harpswell Board of Selectmen was expected to consider Thursday changing Town Meeting to March 20 to allow more time to gather school closure information for voters. 

The school district originally planned the referendum for Town Meeting as a means of drawing as many residents as possible, Wilhelm said, but its attorney and the Maine Municipal Association recommended against a secret ballot referendum and a town business meeting going on simultaneously.

Although the School Board voted to close the West Harpswell School and move its students to the larger Harpswell Islands School, residents can vote to keep the school open at the referendum. If they do, the town would ultimately have to pay SAD 75 the cost savings that would have been created by closing the school, which would also require authorization from Town Meeting.

The district has determined the savings to be $219,000. That claim is being contested by the Friends for Harpswell Education, a group that recently sued SAD 75 and the state Department of Education in an effort to halt the referendum and school closure.

The opposition group claims the district’s savings figures are misleading and amount to a cost shift if the town votes to keep the school open. It says the savings would be closer to $128,000, and it disputes the district’s claim of salary savings.

In a recent letter to DOE Commissioner Susan Gendron, the Harpswell Board of Selectmen also disputed the salary savings. It argued that the district’s plan to make the West Harpswell School’s half-time principal the full-time principal at Harpswell Island School, at the exact same salary, will result in at best minimal savings.

The board previously mulled joining the opposition group’s legal argument. However, it opted not to after consulting the Maine Municipal Association and the town attorney.

Meanwhile, the opposition group continues to seek support. In an e-mail last week, member Robert McIntyre said the group has raised $3,000 from more than 40 donors to fight the closure.

SAD 75 has cited declining enrollment at West Harpswell School, and an improved ability to meet those students’ needs at a larger school, as reasons to close the school.

West Harpswell School currently has 73 students, while Harpswell Island School has 93.

Still, opponents of the closure argue that it will remove young children from their familiar West Harpswell School community during the day, and subject them to longer bus rides to the Harpswell Islands School.

If the referendum survives the legal challenge, polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at three locations on March 9: Merriconeag Grange at 529 Harpswell Neck Road, Cundy’s Harbor Community Building at 837 Cundy’s Harbor Road and the Orr’s Island Community Building, 1594 Harpswell Islands Road.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected]; Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected]