Harpswell Coastal Academy will be forced close at the end of the academic year after the Maine Charter School Commission denied the school’s charter renewal application Tuesday afternoon.

The narrow vote ended HCA’s tumultuous eight-month fight for survival, which had drawn dozens of students, parents and community members to attend public meetings, write letters and donate funds to support the school.

While several of the commission’s seven voting members recognized the importance of HCA’s ability to welcome students who struggle to fit in at traditional public schools, they also expressed concerns about the school’s performance.

Commission staff had recommended against renewal, citing low enrollment numbers, high chronic absenteeism rates and an unstable financial structure, among other concerns that have persisted over several years.

“I’m not accustomed to quoting Shakespeare, but he said in “The Tempest,” ‘What is past is prologue,’” said James Handy. “That’s what I’ve gleaned from all the information I’ve read. I’m very concerned that we’re going to just keep hearing more information that’s never going to stop.”

Harpswell Coastal Academy officials had hoped the commission would take the unusual step of deferring decision on renewal until its Nov. 8 meeting. The extra time would have allowed the school to present additional data showing improvements in attendance and standardized testing participation rates, as well as provided the commission’s three new members opportunities learn more about the school, according to a letter from Amy Dieterich, an attorney representing the school.


Instead, the commission voted 4-3 against deferment after its newest members said they had heard enough to make an informed vote.

“I can’t say that two months is going to make any difference at all,” said Victoria Kornfield, who this spring was the lone Commission member to vote against HCA’s plan to consolidate its two campuses. “To me, it’s just kicking the can down the road, quite honestly.”

Harpswell Coastal Academy Board Chair Cynthia Shelberdine and Interim Head of School Mel Christensen Fletcher argued the school’s poor performance metrics mask its impact on kids who have struggled socially or academically in other environments.

“For various reasons, many of our students didn’t learn, couldn’t learn at their previous school, and they were ready to give up,” Shelberdine said. “We see them come to HCA and build the confidence to learn after all, to enjoy their education after all, and to graduate, after all. We see a school that is successful by the measure most important to both your mission and ours: successful students who become thriving citizens.”

While some commission members, including Nichi Farnham, agreed HCA has cultivated a positive culture that helps some students, none supported unconditional renewal, noting the school has met only 29% of the academic targets in its charter contract over the past four years.

Members considered approving the school’s renewal application only if the institution meet eight conditions within the next four months.


Some of the proposed conditions, which included implementing plans to cut chronic absenteeism from 58% to 18% and to boost enrollment from 172 to 200 by the end of the February, would be impossible for the school to achieve, according to some board members.

Noting that Harpswell Coastal Academy had already overcome long odds by pulling together funding for its consolidation plan, a majority voted to support conditional renewal anyway. Yet the four votes in favor of renewal fell one short of the supermajority required by statute.

Thomas Keller, Victoria Kornfield and James Handy voted against renewal.

Charter Commission staff will work with HCA leadership to form a plan for the rest of this academic year, which will be the school’s last.

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