Harpswell School Survives After Commission OKs Plan to Consolidate

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MAY, 2022

The Maine Charter School Commission on Tuesday approved Harpswell Coastal Academy’s plan to consolidate its two campuses, which school officials say is necessary for the institution’s survival.

The Maine Charter School Commission approved Harpswell Coastal Academy’s plan to consolidate its two campuses Tuesday afternoon, a decision that ends months of uncertainty for the school’s students, parents and educators.

If the commission had denied the proposal to relocate approximately 100 high school students from Brunswick to Harpswell, school officials said financial issues would have shuttered the institution at close of the academic year.

“The job is well begun,” said Commission Chair Wilson Hess, part of the 4-1 majority that approved the proposal. “But it is only begun. There’s much work left to do.”

In order to make room for its high school students, Harpswell Coastal Academy will purchase and install three yurts — a circular tent-like structure — this summer on its Harpswell campus, where grades 5 through 8 are currently based.

“Our schedule for the summer work looks pretty good,” said Mel Christensen Fletcher, a science teacher who will serve as interim head of school next year. “We have some built-in room there should things take a little bit longer.”

If construction is delayed, the school will use spaces like the library, music room and gymnasium as temporary classes in the fall, she added.

Several Commission members, who initially deferred judgment on the Harpswell charter school’s proposal at its April 12 meeting, complimented both the administration’s detailed consolidation and community engagement plans and their successful fundraising effort.

The school raised $160,000 through two separate fundraising drives, enough that it could afford the $200,000-250,000 consolidation project without financing, according to current Head of School Scott Barksdale.

“The financial consideration was a very troubling consideration as we moved into this,” Hess told HCA leadership. “Being able to resolve that particular financial situation in the way you did and removing it from the table was a very important measure.”

Victoria Kornfield of Bangor, the commission’s lone dissenter, remained skeptical of the school, which has failed to stay within 10% its enrollment target for two straight years and which has a chronic absenteeism rate of approximately 50%, according to a Commission report.

“The plans are wonderful,” said Kornfield, noting commission staff recommended against the consolidation proposal in April. “But past performance says that they’re not going to be able to do everything that they say they are.”

Other commission members acknowledged mistakes made by the school’s administration, which include a recently discovered $132,000 budgeting error that contributed to the school’s financial woes. Yet they expressed hope the widespread community effort to save Harpswell Coastal Academy had steered the institution back on track.

“I feel like finally you’re all pushing the rock up the hill,” said Maine Charter School Commission member Shelley Reed. “It’s my hope that the rock doesn’t roll back on you.”