Harpswell charter school could close if consolidation offer is rejected

Harpswell Coastal Academy is set to close after Maine Charter School Commission staff refused to back a proposal that would consolidate the institution’s two campuses, according to the school’s newsletter on the 1st. April.

“This is terribly sad news for all of us,” read the message, signed by council chairwoman Cynthia Shelmerdine and school principal Scott Barksdale. “Board and community are fully committed to the school and have worked very hard to come up with a plan that we believe will support it. But without the commission’s approval, we cannot move forward.

Staff from the Maine Charter School Commission, which advises the commission’s six voting members, cited the school’s low enrollment, unstable financial future and chronic absenteeism, among other issues, as reasons why they would not support the consolidation effort, according to the bulletin.

At its April 12 meeting, the commission will vote on the academy’s plan to move its high school program, currently based in Brunswick, to its Harpswell campus. It will also vote on the funding needed to complete the move.

If the commission rejects the proposals, as expected, Harpswell Coastal Academy’s board of trustees will vote the next day to cease operations at the end of the current school year, according to the bulletin.

Although school officials declined to comment this week, a March 12 letter from Barksdale to the school community attributed the institution’s financial difficulties to low enrollment.

According to its charter agreement with the state, enrollment at Harpswell Coastal Academy must remain within 10% of its goal of 210 students. It failed to reach that mark for two consecutive years; current enrollment in grades 5 through 12 is 173, depending on the school.

The April 1 announcement came as yet another shock to parents like Jamie Giles, who learned of the school’s problems just weeks before the board apparently resolved the issues by voting unanimously to consolidate last month. .

“We were all caught off guard,” Giles said of the school’s initial announcement that it was in danger of closing. “While we knew enrollment was important, we were never told how important those numbers were.”

While the Maine Charter School Commission’s 2021 Annual Monitoring Report on Harpswell Coastal Academy noted the school’s low enrollment, it specifically praised its “strong financial practices that support the sustainability of the school.” .

Due to what Harpswell Coastal Academy staff described to Giles as an accounting error, the school only recently discovered that its financial situation was dire.

Giles, who has three children at the charter school, said she was angry the institution didn’t alert parents sooner.

She said she was worried her children would miss out on the opportunities offered by HCA, which is committed to hands-on, experiential learning.

“We will get together,” she remembers thinking. “We will mobilize. Let’s do this and keep our beloved school open.

After the board voted to consolidate rather than close on March 16, the school community began working to bring the proposal to life, according to Giles. Parents have formed dedicated community outreach committees, and school report cards and social media posts have encouraged families to participate in enrollment drives.

That momentum quickly waned with the news that commission staff would not support consolidation.

At the request of school officials, parents like Giles have written to commission members expressing their support for Harpswell Coastal Academy, but optimism remains low.

“I think they’re so removed from the work that’s going on (at the HCA),” Giles said of the commission. “I would like them to come and see what is being done in this school, but I don’t think they will. This part scares me.

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