HARPSWELL — Town voters will have a difficult choice, from both a monetary and an emotional standpoint, to make Tuesday.

They will be asked whether they want to keep the West Harpswell Elementary School on Ash Point Road open, or support the school district’s decision to close the K-5 school next fall.

School Administrative District 75 officials voted last June to close the school, which has seen enrollment decline steadily and now has just over 70 students. The district would send those students to the town’s other elementary school, the Harpswell Islands School.

But some residents and parents are upset with the district’s decision and have filed a lawsuit. The suit, which is still pending, alleges that the cost of keeping the school open — about $220,000 beyond this school year, the district says — has been inflated to discourage voters from opposing the closure.

SAD 75 Superintendent Michael Wilhelm said he sympathizes with those opponents, but that it makes sense for the district to consolidate its resources and students.

The Harpswell Islands School has 97 students, with a capacity for 300.

“West Harpswell is a little community school, and in many people’s minds it is the center of their community,” Wilhelm said. “It’s a very emotional and a very painful process for them to go through.”

Under the consolidation plan, students from West Harpswell would not lose any programming. If anything, school officials say their access to resources will increase.

SAD 75 is just one of many districts that have been forced to close elementary schools to reduce costs in recent years, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

Regional School Union 13 in Rockland is in the process of closing a school, he said. Ogunquit closed a school a couple of years ago, as did SAD 61 in Bridgton.

“Statewide, enrollments are declining, in some places quite dramatically,” Connerty-Marin said. “Everywhere, the funds that are available are getting tighter.”

Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the tax rate would increase slightly — by about 2 percent — if residents vote to keep the school open.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron has approved the closure proposal. But a group calling itself Friends of Harpswell Education has taken issue with the district’s claim that it will cost $220,000 next year to keep it open.

Robert McIntyre, a spokesman, said Gendron has told his group that if a judge rules the district’s $220,000 calculation is incorrect, a second referendum vote would need to be scheduled.

Two of the major points of contention are the cost of transporting West Harpswell students to Harpswell Islands School, and whether that school is accessible to persons with disabilities, McIntyre said.

SAD 75 estimates that transportation time will increase for some students, but will be the same or less for others. Wilhelm said the district will make certain the school is accessible to handicapped persons.

The polls will be open Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Merriconeag Grange on Route 123, the Orrs Island School House on Route 24, and the Cundy’s Harbor Community Building on Cundy’s Harbor Road.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]