The Maine Charter School Commission votes 4-1 to approve Harpswell Coastal Academy’s consolidation plan during a meeting at the Burton M. Cross Building in Augusta on Tuesday, May 10. (ZOOM SCREENSHOT)
The Maine Charter School Commission approved Harpswell Coastal Academy’s consolidation plan in a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, May 10, but the commission’s chair says the charter school remains “fragile” and has much work to do.
“I want you to know that in my mind and, I believe, the minds of most of my commission colleagues, HCA is still a fragile institution,” Chair Wilson G. Hess said. “You’re still fragile financially. You have enrollment challenges to meet.”
Hess applauded the school for raising $160,000 to cover the initial costs of consolidation. The school had sought commission approval to borrow funds for consolidation before raising the money and withdrawing the request.
“Being able to resolve that particular financial situation in the way you did and removing it from the table was an important, a very important, measure,” Hess said.
Hess encouraged the school to “redouble” its fundraising efforts and make fundraising “an ongoing part of improving your overall financial performance.”
“It’s a hard thing to do, but successful institutions sustain those types of initiatives,” he said.
He pointed out that Harpswell Coastal Academy’s charter contract expires next year and the commission’s approval of consolidation “should not be taken as an indicator on renewal.”
“There’s much work left to do,” Hess said. “The commission’s staff and the commission itself wants you to succeed. Ball’s in your court. Wishing you the best.”
Commissioner Victoria “Tori” Kornfield cast the sole vote against the plan, citing the school’s finances and the recommendation of the commission’s staff to reject the plan.
“The plans are wonderful, but past performance says that they’re not going to … be able to do everything that they say they are,” Kornfield said. “They’re well meaning. I understand that. They want their school to be good. I get it. But there has been nothing in the past that tells us that it’s going to happen.”
Commission Executive Director Jeremy Jones did not indicate a change in the staff’s recommendation, but did say that he has worked with Harpswell Coastal Academy leadership to refine the consolidation plan.
“We have worked incredibly hard in a collaborative manner,” Jones said, starting the morning after the commission’s April vote to table the consolidation request. “I have to give the HCA team a lot of credit for all the work that they put into their plan over the last month,” he said.
“I think it’s just important for everyone to really understand that this is not a commission-versus-charter environment, but I’ve been impressed with HCA’s willingness to come to the table and work collaboratively with the commission,” Jones added.
Commissioner Shelley Reed, chair of the commission’s School Performance Committee, reported that the committee had voted 2-1 to recommend approval of the consolidation plan. She did not elaborate on members’ votes, but Kornfield serves on the committee and asked Reed to exclude her from positive remarks about the committee’s review.
Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine addressed the commission prior to its vote.
“Nobody is under an illusion that we are doing something easy, but we’ve been energized by the ways in which we see that consolidation will help us address some of the deficiencies in the school. … I think we now see some solutions as clearly as we see the problems, so thank you all for helping us get to that point.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy currently operates one location in the former West Harpswell School, which it owns; and one on the former naval base in Brunswick. Grades five through eight attend school in Harpswell, grades nine through 12 in Brunswick.
The consolidation plan will close the Brunswick facility and bring all grades to the Harpswell campus, where the school will erect three yurts to provide additional classroom space.
The Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors first voted to consolidate on March 16. School officials said that a pandemic-driven decline in enrollment had left them with a choice to consolidate or close.
The school faced resistance to consolidation from the Charter School Commission. The commission’s staff cited academic and financial problems, as well as high absenteeism and low enrollment, in its recommendation against the plan.
Throughout the process, dozens of students, parents, alumni and staff urged officials to approve the consolidation, describing the school as a haven for students who did not succeed or feel safe in public school before thriving at Harpswell Coastal Academy.
In comments after the meeting, Shelmerdine said the board is grateful for the commission giving consolidation a chance.
“There is a lot of exciting work ahead,” Shelmerdine said in an email to the Anchor. “First and foremost is enrollment. We want to get the word out that we are indeed open for learning, and eager to welcome both new and returning students.”
The school will also continue fundraising. A teacher has set up an online campaign at gofund.me/34cfce23.
“A lot of work went into our consolidation plan, which lays out tasks and timelines for our next steps,” Shelmerdine said. “We look forward to getting back to our Harpswell roots.”