West Harpswell School's fate now rests with Harpswell voters

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HARPSWELL — The West Harpswell School is a referendum away from being closed.

After the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors voted Thursday night to close the school after the 2009-2010 school year, the district is required to give Harpswell residents a vote on the decision, Superintendent of Schools Mike Wilhelm said on Friday.

If residents vote in a referendum to keep the elementary school open, the town would be responsible for providing SAD 75 with the financial savings the district would have realized had the school been closed and consolidated with the Harpswell Islands School. A referendum date has not been set, and Wilhelm said fixed-cost savings from the closing would be nearly $185,000 a year.

The school board’s vote was 13-1, with Jane Meisenbach of Harpswell dissenting.

“I feel that the unusual geography of Harpswell does warrant having two schools,” Meisenbach said. “In my profession as a Realtor, I’ve already had concrete evidence that closing that school will impact the influx of families into the Harpswell Neck.”

In a perfect world, Meisenbach added, she would like there to be a centrally located school for all of Harpswell’s students, but she said she realizes the district cannot afford one. She also pointed out that West Harpswell is academically successful, and suggested that the local economy could improve in the next few years, making it worthwhile to keep the school open in the meantime.

Joanne Rogers of Bailey Island, a school board member who voted for the closing and chairwoman of the board’s strategic planning group, called that panel “one of the more difficult committees that I have served on since I’ve been on the board, particularly since it dealt with the community I am elected from.”

Rogers said she considered the information before the board sufficient for it to make a decision on the school.

Board member Kim Totten said that during community forums in March, “I thought people in Harpswell were about raising kids for the 21st century. At the forum, parents talked about wanting their kids to be more involved in more hands-on learning and becoming citizens of the greater community, the global community. They wanted diversity, to reach out to their neighbors and do more community service.”

She said she was surprised by the “mudslinging” that followed. “I was bothered with one side of Harpswell slamming the other. How can you raise kids to be good citizens when you can’t even embrace your own town? Geography can make it difficult to be close with the entire town, but people who refuse to try make it impossible,” Totten said.

Board member David Johnson of Bailey Island said this was one of the toughest decisions he has had to make in more than a decade on the committee.

“I have spent sleepless nights thinking about this,” he said. “… Throughout this process I have come to the point that I have to take the responsibility and accept the fact that consolidation of the two Harpswell schools is the way I see that this district has to go. It’s the responsibility of me to do what’s in the best interest of the students of Harpswell and the whole district. That is what I am elected to do.”

Wilhelm presented the board with the findings of the Strategic Planning Action Team, which completed its work June 8 and has been studying the feasibility of closing the school and moving its fewer than 80 children to the larger Harpswell Islands School.

“The major goal of this whole process has been an educational goal,” Wilhelm said. “How can we best serve all the kids in Harpswell given the situation that we have there with two small schools?”

Opponents of the merger have criticized moving West Harpswell elementary students out of their community and the increased time those children would spend on buses. They’ve also said there has been a lack of information about cost savings that would actually be generated.

Wilhelm said that during the community forums in March, Harpswell residents expressed concern that their small schools did not give students access to the resources that larger schools in the district enjoy. While a small elementary school holds between 300 and 350 students, according to a national standard, he said the two Harpswell schools combined would have 156 students and still be the smallest school in the district.

The schools as separate facilities limit options for children and families at each grade, as well as availability of support staff like social workers, guidance, librarians and literacy teachers, and the ability of teachers to work together to support students, Wilhelm said.

He said that based on fiscal 2008 numbers, the district would save nearly $185,000 in fixed costs by closing the school. While this may not seem like much compared with the $36 million fiscal 2010 budget recently approved by voters,  Wilhelm noted, in five years the savings can add up to nearly $1 million.

Preparations to make Harpswell Islands comply with Americans with Disability Act standards would cost $5,350, Wilhelm said, and additional fuel costs to transport children from the West Harpswell area to Harpswell Islands would be more than $1,600. The new bus runs – requiring more than 2,300 additional miles a year – would take up to 50 minutes, he said, adding that the reality of a rural school district is that children are on buses for long periods of time.

“The longest bus rides are in Bowdoinham and Bowdoin,” Wilhelm said. “They aren’t in Harpswell.”

The superintendent said more food service staff will not be necessary, since those employed at West Harpswell can be used at Harpswell Islands. Plus there would be a reduction in food service costs, Wilhelm said, since there would no longer be a program at the smaller school.

David I. Chipman of Harpswell, a former school board member, said closing West Harpswell has come up before when budget issues are concerned.

“It seems to be the low-hanging fruit; it’s the smallest school in the district,” Chipman said.

He pointed out that while it may seem simple from the outside to take two Harpswell schools and combine them into one, the town is comprised of two “very separate” communities and has been that way for 250 years.

Chipman acknowledged that SAD 75’s focus is on improving the learning environment for its students. “But I cannot understand how consolidating these two schools is improving the educational opportunities, or the environment, for the Harpswell kids,” he said. “… West Harpswell School has a significant community participation. That’s something you want in a school.”

He said standardized test scores validate the school’s success. He also said a workforce housing project in that area of town is intended to bring young people to Harpswell, and that the school is “the No. 1 magnet” for attracting families.

Closing that school “hurts our efforts to build our community back up,” Chipman said. “… I believe that closing the West Harpswell School begins the death spiral of Harpswell as a diverse community with young people and volunteers and everything that we’ve known in the past. Because … as we lose those families, the next step is closing the Harpswell Islands School and moving what few kids we have left to Topsham or somewhere else.”

Dan Billings of Bowdoinham noted that SAD 75 faces a series of tough decisions in the time ahead, and that issues such as declining enrollments aren’t going away.

“As unhappy as people may be in Harpswell today,” Billings said, “I think if you don’t make this decision and other tough decisions, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy people throughout the district, either as they’re cutting programs, cutting teachers, making classes bigger or looking for big tax increases to try to maintain what we have.”

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

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.