State education chief tells SAD 75 to rework arguments for closing West Harpswell School

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HARPSWELL — Education Commissioner Susan Gendron told School Administrative District 75 to revise its case for closing West Harpswell School, following a formal appeal by the group opposed to the closing.

Gendron on Tuesday notified the school district that she could not approve its “lack of need” report until it addresses two issues. One deals with SAD 75’s offer of school choice and its impact on enrollment; the other is the increase in transportation costs the school closing is expected to generate.

Both issues were cited by The Friends for Harpswell Education, the group fighting the school closure, in an Oct. 19 meeting with Gendron.

Representatives of the group said Gendron’s response is further evidence that SAD 75’s plan is unjustified, but acknowledged their fight isn’t over.

“It’s optimistic that we have (Gendron’s) ear,” said Friends Chairman Jeffrey Slocum. “But I still don’t think the full scope of the misinformation that has gone into (SAD 75’s) case has been fully appreciated. There’s not much reason to celebrate at this point.”

Slocum said he is pleased Gendron asked SAD 75 to review the impact of school choice, which he said will affect enrollment at Harpswell Island School, the facility West Harpswell School students would have to attend if their school is closed.

SAD 75 Superintendent Michael Wilhelm, meanwhile, saw the commissioner’s response as a temporary setback. Wilhelm said the district worked closely with the Department of Education during the application process to ensure there weren’t mistakes. Wilhelm stopped short of saying the department’s response contradicted its previous advice.

“We could have misunderstood their instructions,” he said. “We thought we were on the right track. We wouldn’t have submitted it if we thought we weren’t.” 

DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin on Tuesday said Gendron hasn’t taken a position on the proposed school closing, an issue that’s mobilized residents in West Harpswell who are concerned the proposal is driven by budget considerations rather than educational needs.

“You’re taking what some might call the flagship school in the district and shutting it down,” Slocum said. “That sounds like education as a business with profit being the bottom line.”

“The proposal may make dollars,” he added, “but it doesn’t make sense.”

Other than continually rejecting SAD 75’s lack of need report, the commissioner has little authority to halt the closure. The School Board in June voted 13-1 to close West Harpswell School; Harpswell residents can choose to keep the school open during a referendum that will likely be held next year. 

Should voters decide to keep the school open, the town would ultimately pay to do so, which in turn would require a vote during Town Meeting or a special Town Meeting.

Slocum’s group has argued that Harpswell’s splintered geography and its students’ performances on standardized tests should be taken into consideration before closing West Harpswell School. The Friends argue that busing students to Harpswell Islands School would adversely affect the students’ education and parent involvement, two factors that Slocum said feed West Harpswell School’s high performance. 

The group also says that the district’s argument to close the school overstates the potential savings, while ignoring its steady enrollment.

According to the district, enrollment at West Harpswell School has gone from 124 students in 1998-1999 to 74 students this year. But Slocum’s group argues that the decline isn’t as steep as the drop at Harpswell Island School, which has fallen from 222 students to 97 students over the same period.

“We’ve had steady enrollment over the last seven years,” said Slocum, who refuted SAD 75’s claim that the school’s enrollment was declining because of Harpswell’s rising property values. 

In an Oct. 19 letter to Gendron, Board of Selectmen Chairman Jim Henderson argued that enrollment at West Harpswell is poised for growth. Henderson highlighted the town’s recent efforts to establish affordable housing on Harpswell Neck through developments like Hamilton Place, which is run by the Brunswick Housing Authority, and a decision during 2008 Town Meeting to allow apartments to be attached to single-family homes. 

The district’s lack of need report, available on the town’s Web site, estimates that the district would save more than $232,000 by closing the school.

But Slocum said the savings is closer to $128,000 and doesn’t account for having to maintain an empty building, increased transportation costs or a part-time principal who would split time between both elementary schools. 

“There is very little in their report that makes sense,” Slocum said. “It looks like it came from a budgetary department rather than an education department, which might make sense if the (district) has completely lost sight of education goals.”

Slocum also accused SAD 75 of deploying a “divide-and-conquer” strategy, adding that the district has warned that failing to close the facility could mean less programing and resources for Harpswell Island School. 

Wilhelm, meanwhile, said he hoped to resubmit the report soon. He said the SAD 75 board would probably schedule the Harpswell referendum at its next board meeting in November. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or