West Harpswell School again targeted for closure

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TOPSHAM — The clock is ticking for Harpswell to respond to the latest application from School Administrative District 75 to close West Harpswell School.

SAD 75 submitted its proposal to the Maine Department of Education on Monday. Harpswell has 10 days to challenge the plan.

Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said the application includes a report that justifies closing the school and moving its students to Harpswell Islands School. It also includes a financial audit of the savings, based on fiscal 2010 numbers, that SAD 75 would realize by closing the school.

The School Board voted in June for the second consecutive year to close the school. Harpswell will in turn vote a second time on the decision, too. If residents vote to keep the school open for another year, the town will again have to repay the cost savings determined by the district’s audit.

Last year the school district determined the savings for one year, based on fiscal 2009 numbers, to be $219,000. Harpswell had to pay that amount in March when its citizens voted 906-827 to keep the school open.

The School Board reviewed the contents of the application at its Oct. 21 meeting.

This year’s application predicts savings of about $200,000. Wilhelm said the savings are slightly smaller this year because the state is not allowing the school principal’s salary to be included in the audit.

Wilhelm noted that the Department of Education does not determine whether the lack of need for the school is sufficiently supported, but rather whether SAD 75 supports the anticipated cost savings.

Harpswell has 10 days from receipt of the SAD 75 cost statement to present questions about the district’s calculation.

The town administrator, deputy town administrator, town treasurer and two members of the Budget Committee will examine the calculation and recommend to the Board of Selectmen whether any action is necessary.

Wilhelm has said that closing the school and moving its students to the larger Harpswell Islands School will boost capacity for students at a time of scarce resources. Dropping enrollment at West Harpswell School has also been a trigger for closure; last year’s student population of 74 declined to 68 last month.

Wilhelm said last week that the Harpswell Islands School has the capacity to educate the 169 students now attending both schools. He said the school has had more than 200 students in the past.

The SAD 75 report notes that consolidating the two schools will increase transportation costs due to added mileage. One of the three bus routes would add 11.12 miles per run and another would add 1.55 miles. The third would have no added mileage, but would take four minutes longer to pick up five students from an affected bus route.

“At two runs per day,” the report states, “the additional route time with students aboard, is a combined 34 minutes per day for the three routes.”

If Harpswell voters ratify the School Board’s decision, and the school closes at the end of this school year, the board has proposed offering the building and property to the town at no cost.

The School Board must schedule Harpswell’s referendum on the shutdown. Wilhelm said he expects the vote will take place next year.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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