Delayed consolidation vote could doom Harpswell charter school

A still from a video encouraging the adoption of a consolidation plan for Harpswell Coastal Academy. Video still from YouTube

The Maine Charter Schools Commission voted Tuesday afternoon to defer a decision on a proposal to consolidate Harpswell Coastal Academy on its Harpswell campus beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

The delay, which came after dozens of Harpswell Coastal Academy students, teachers and parents spoke out and wrote letters in favor of consolidation, could force the school to close at the end of its term spring, according to school officials.

“Essentially to put this off for another month is to say, ‘Teachers, go get (jobs), students, don’t sign up,'” school principal Scott Barksdale said. “We are going to lose teachers and children. And our enrollment goals – those just got a whole lot tougher.

The consolidation proposal, which the Commission voted 4-2 to postpone until its next meeting in May, would have moved the school’s approximately 100 secondary students to Harpswell, where grades 5-8 are currently based. Without combining its Brunswick and Harpswell campuses, the school cannot afford to open next fall, according to the school’s April 1 parent newsletter, which reported that the school’s board of trustees the establishment could vote on Wednesday to close after this school year.

Barksdale and his staff came to the meeting expecting the Commission to reject the proposal, after Commission staff, who advise the body’s voting members, indicated they would not support consolidation .

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Commission members expressed concern about the school’s financial outlook, weak enrollment trends, operational viability, and leadership capacity. According to a Commission staff report, 76% of the school’s Grade 10 students are “chronically absent,” meaning they miss at least 10% of school days.

“When I look at Harpswell Coastal Academy, I see a failing school,” said Victoria Kornfield of Bangor. “I see a school looking for solutions to very serious problems only when it has its back to the wall.”

Other Board members were influenced by an outpouring of support from members of the school community.

Over 100 people attended the commission meeting remotely or in person, including several classrooms full of HCA students and staff. During the meeting’s lengthy public comment segment, 15 speakers argued that the closure of Harpswell Charter School could hurt students who do not feel at home in the public school system.

“Coming to HCA changed my outlook on life,” said student Chelsea Baker. “I did a lot better mentally, emotionally and physically. Going back to my old school is my biggest nightmare.

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Students and educators cited the charter’s flexible and inclusive atmosphere, which they said made it an ideal solution for students with LGBTQ identities, histories of abuse or learning disabilities, as well as students with disabilities. other children who struggle to integrate into public schools.

Shelley Reed has moved a motion to postpone the consolidation decision, hoping that additional time would give school staff an opportunity to refine their plan and get more accurate cost estimates.

“HCA is facing a crisis,” Reed said. “But the one thing I know about crisis is that it very often opens the door to opportunity.”

Since staff at Harpswell Coastal Academy recently uncovered a $130,000 budget blunder that put the school’s immediate future at risk, community members have raced to improve enrollment and raise funds. funds for the school’s move to Harpswell. According to an April 8 newsletter, the school has received pledges of $92,000 for the project.

The consolidation, which would require the purchase and installation of three yurts and improvements to the school’s parking lot and septic systems, would cost $327,000, according to Harpswell Coastal Academy’s proposal. To help fund the project, the school is applying for a $100,000 loan from Androscoggin Bank, which the Commission will have to approve.

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“I want to give them the opportunity to work out a problem,” Reed said, explaining his motion to defer the consolidation issue. “I don’t want to unplug something when people haven’t had a chance to fix this.”

Yet while several board members saw the vote as an encouraging step for Harpswell Coastal Academy, Barksdale appeared defeated, while parents in the Zoom chat feared the school would not be able to raise funds or support. attract students without an approved consolidation plan.

“We’re all in shock right now,” Barksdale said. “This action goes against every intention that I have heard expressed here today. I don’t know what else to say.


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