A still image taken from a video that encourages the adoption of a consolidation plan for Harpswell Coastal Academy. Video still from YouTube

The Maine Charter School Commission voted Tuesday afternoon to defer a decision on a proposal to consolidate Harpswell Coastal Academy at its Harpswell campus starting in the 2022-2023 school year.

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

“Essentially, putting this off another month is saying, ‘Teachers, go look (for jobs), students, don’t enroll,’” said Head of School Scott Barksdale. “We’ll lose teachers and kids. And our enrollment goals – those just got much tougher.”

The consolidation proposal, which the Commission voted 4-2 to defer to their next meeting in May, would have relocated the school’s approximately 100 high school 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 newsletter to parents, which stated the institution’s Board of Directors could vote Wednesday to shutter after this school year.

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

Commission members expressed concern with the school’s financial outlook, low enrollment trends, operational viability and leadership capacity. According to a Commission staff report, 76% of the school’s 10th graders 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 chasing after solutions to very serious problems only when its back was against the wall.”

Other Commission members were swayed 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 closing the Harpswell charter school could harm students who don’t feel at home in the public school system.

“Coming to HCA has changed my perspective on life,” said student Chelsea Baker. “I’ve done much better mentally, emotionally and physically. Going back to my old school is my biggest nightmare.”

Students and educators cited the charter’s flexible and inclusive atmosphere, which they said made it a strong fit for students with LGBTQ identities, histories of abuse or learning disabilities, as well as other kids who struggle to fit in at public schools.

Shelley Reed introduced a motion to defer the consolidation decision, hoping additional time would give school staff an opportunity to refine their plan and get more specific costs estimates.


“HCA is facing a crisis,” Reed said. “But the one thing I know about crisis is it very often clears the path for opportunity.”

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

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

“I want to give them the opportunity to solve a problem,” Reed said, explaining her motion to defer the consolidation question. “I don’t want to pull a plug on something when people haven’t had an opportunity to solve that problem.”

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 worried the school would not be able to raise funds or draw students without an approved plan for consolidation.

“We’re all shocked right now,” Barksdale said. “This action stands in the way of all the intent that I heard expressed here today. I don’t know what else to say.”

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