HARPSWELL — About 50 people showed up at the Harpswell Islands School on Tuesday night for a public hearing on the potential closing of the West Harpswell School.
The meeting was held to discuss a Feb. 1 referendum, where residents will decide whether to pay School Administrative District 75 $190,000 to keep the school open for another year.
A nearly two-year saga over whether the school should be closed – the town voted last year to override the district’s wishes and keep the school open for a year – has pitted Harpswell residents against SAD 75, and against each other. Some residents favor consolidation of the town’s two schools, while others are vehemently opposed.
As an indicator of the tension surrounding the decision, a Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department deputy stood watch at the door to the cafeteria, where the meeting took place. When asked why he was there, he responded, “just in case.”
Indeed, SAD 75 Superintendent Michael Wilhelm said he requested the deputy’s presence because of rowdy meetings in the past. But the deputy’s assistance was unnecessary Tuesday; despite the obvious and passionate differences of opinion, the tone of the meeting was calm and respectful.
Wilhelm started the evening by presenting SAD 75’s arguments for closing the West Harpswell School. These include the $190,000 savings to the school district, more days of special teacher time (art, music, physical education, etc.) at a consolidated school, single-grade (instead of multi-aged) classrooms, improved flexibility in scheduling and greater unification of the town, among others.
Following Wilhelm’s remarks, the floor was opened to public comment. Over the course of two hours, nearly 20 Harpswell residents stepped up to the microphone. The vast majority were opposed to the school closure; only two or three speakers seemed to support or at least be open to the possibility of unifying the two schools.
Robert McIntyre, a Harpswell resident and passionate opponent of closing the school, spoke first. He argued that the geography of the town requires two schools. He added that the schools, 11.4 miles apart, are “closer to Brunswick than to each other.”
Dorothy Rosenberg, a Harpswell resident, gave one of the evening’s most combative arguments when she debated with Wilhelm over his statement “the smaller the school, the less capacity it has to deliver resources to students.”
“Did you really say that?” she asked.
The question put Wilhelm on the defensive. He said specials teachers are only present one day a week at the West Harpswell School. If the schools are combined, the teachers will be available between 2.5 and 3.5 days per week, depending on the subject. He said even though students won’t have any more specials class time, the teachers will be more available to students outside of class than they are now at either school.
Rosenberg also asked if the School Board considered alternative ways to save money other than closing the West Harpswell School. She suggested that the board eliminate one senior administrator, like the superintendent, to come up with the savings.
Hannah Beady, a Harpswell resident, worried that the debate had focused so much on keeping the West Harpswell School open that there was little discussion of what would happen if it closes.
“This whole process has been terribly painful, and I don’t want my kids to be part of a process that’s not incredibly thought out,” she said.
Wilhelm responded by outlining the closure plan. He said the move would begin in February, a principal for the consolidated school would be found by June, and the Parent Teacher Organizations would be merged to discuss a vision for the new school.
Wilhelm said although he is retiring in June, he would commit to making sure everything was taken care of before he left.
Alison Hawkes of Cundy’s Harbor supports closing the school. She said that the two schools are now forced to share resources like a principal and certain teachers, and noted that if the West Harpswell School is closed, the combined school might qualify for state programs that are currently unavailable to the individual schools because they are too small.
Near the end of the night, resident Richard Gelwick offered an introspective take on the issue. He started out by thanking the board for its work, and noted that “I would make the same recommendation that the School Board has made if I was sitting in your shoes.”
He added that the board has a responsibility to consider the well-being of all the students in SAD 75, not just Harpswell. He then suggested that Harpswell residents are directing too much of their anger at the board.
“I just don’t want you to feel that our real argument is with you,” he said. “I really think it’s with ourselves.”
Harpswell residents can vote between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 1, at the Merriconeag Grange, the old Orr’s Island school house, or the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall.
Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This report was edited on Jan. 27 to reflect that Alison Hawkes did not state her support for closing West Harpswell School in comments she made at the public hearing, but later acknowledged that she favors the consolidation.
About 50 residents attended Tuesday’s SAD 75 public hearing on the proposed closing of West Harpswell School. Residents sat in chairs and on bleachers at the Harpswell Islands School, which would be Harpswell’s only public school if the closing is approved by voters on Feb. 1.