HARPSWELL — Residents spurred by concerns about closure of West Harpswell School and the quality of elementary education are circulating a petition to withdraw from School Administrative District 75.

Elizabeth Davis addressed selectmen earlier this month regarding the petition and on Wednesday said it is a “complex subject because the petition asks people to imagine what education would be like without being part of the district.” She told selectmen parents are “dissatisfied” with elementary education in Harpswell.

“We as a town have struggled with the district these past two years,” she said.

Davis said an unsuccessful petition to withdraw from SAD 75 also circulated four years ago, but she said much has changed since then. She encouraged selectmen to guide the Education Advisory Committee, established in August, in seeking options to educate Harpswell children outside SAD 75.

Selectmen Chairman James Henderson said the Education Advisory Committee is still seeking additional members, including a chairman. Applications are available on the town website at harpswell.maine.gov.

Davis said withdrawal from the district, which also includes Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham, involves a complex negotiating process that could last several years.

“What we have right now is not good enough,” she said. “The needs of the district and the needs of the town are far apart.”

Town Clerk Rosalind Knight said there must be at least 295 valid signatures on the petition, or 10 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election. All signatures must be from registered Harpswell voters and will be certified prior to any additional action.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said standard steps for petitions after certification of the signatures include sending the petition wording to a lawyer to assure it can be legally voted upon, and discussion and decision by selectmen about when to send the question to voters.

Eiane said petition questions are typically included in the next Town Meeting warrant or in a special meeting called specifically to address the petition.

“There are time frames that have to be met,” she said, adding all referendum questions also require a statutory public meeting within a certain time period prior to any vote.  

SAD 75 Superintendent Michael Wilhelm said he heard about the petition effort last week, when Harpswell resident Robert McIntyre addressed the School Board.

“We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Harpswell,” Wilhelm said. “We’ve had issues in the past around the funding formula, but I don’t think the issues are the same this time.”

Wilhelm said SAD 75 would not become involved in the process until after withdrawal is approved by Harpswell voters. Should that happen, two committees, one representing Harpswell and one representing SAD 75, would be formed to work out details of the withdrawal process, he said.

“We’ve heard nothing officially from the town,” Wilhelm said.

McIntyre said wording of the petition is similar to the one submitted several years ago. It seeks authorization for the town to spend no more than $55,000 to negotiate the possible terms of withdrawal from SAD 75. 

If authorization is granted by voters, a committee will be formed. The withdrawal committee will be made up of four people: one selectman, one School Board member from Harpswell, one representative from the petition group and one other citizen, McIntyre said. The $55,000 would be used toward legal costs and expert advice.

Another vote is required for withdrawal and will take place following withdrawal committee recommendations, McIntyre said.

He said systematic collection of signatures will not begin until after the holidays. McIntyre said approval of the Feb. 1 referendum to keep West Harpswell School open needs to be achieved before withdrawal can be considered.

“If the referendum vote is lost on keeping the school open, it’s too late to withdraw,” he said. “The logic of it … we would have lost much of our bargaining power.”

Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected].

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