Harpswell Coastal Academy will close at the end of the 2022-23 school year, following the Maine Charter School Commission’s decision not to renew HCA’s charter.
In a series of votes on Tuesday, Oct. 11, the commission rejected Harpswell Coastal Academy’s request to delay the decision, 4-3; then declined to renew the charter without conditions, 7-0. The commission voted 4-3 in favor of renewal with conditions, but a supermajority — at least five members — was necessary for approval.
The commission’s staff had recommended against renewal, citing concerns about chronic absenteeism and academic performance, as well as the school’s finances and the size and condition of its building.
A report by the staff emphasized Harpswell Coastal Academy’s high rate of chronic absenteeism, double the state average, and its failure to meet 10 of 14 targets for academics during the last four years.
The report calls Harpswell Coastal Academy “a financially fragile organization” that has struggled to enroll enough students to remain sustainable. It refers to “crowding” in the building after the school’s consolidation from two campuses to one earlier this year. The report also questions whether three yurts, now under construction, would make suitable classrooms during the winter.
“HCA does an amazing job at welcoming its students and helping them feel safe, happy, and loved. However, the primary purpose of school is to educate,” the report states. “HCA has been unable to meet the academic standards. Taxpayer dollars are being used to fund a school where more than half of the student population is chronically absent.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy had asked the Charter School Commission to delay its decision to November, so the school could present information on improvements in attendance and both participation and performance on the NWEA test.
“HCA believes that fairness, equity and due process support its request to postpone a decision on its renewal application until November,” Amy Dieterich, an attorney for the school, said in an email to the commission. “The decision about HCA’s renewal is critically important to the hundreds of people who attend the school, work at the school and are parents of students at the school.”
The email mentions that three of the commission’s seven members just joined the body, and at least one has never visited the school.
But the commissioners were not swayed.
“I can’t see that two months is going to make any difference at all. To me, it’s just kicking the can down the road, quite honestly,” Commissioner Victoria “Tori” Kornfield said. “The school is 10 years old. It seems to always be in coming-from-behind mode.”
One of the new commissioners, James Handy, objected to the suggestion that the newcomers might not be ready to vote.
“I got to say, it has stuck in my craw that I keep hearing this chorus repeated that ‘they’re new board members,’ like we just graduated kindergarten,” Handy said. “Well, frankly, I’m a pretty good study and I have adequate information to make a decision.”
After the narrow vote against the delay, the commission heard from Harpswell Coastal Academy and from the commission’s finance and school performance committees on the question of whether to renew the charter without conditions.
Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of the Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors, said that the commission and the school have “very different perceptions” of the school’s achievements.
“For various reasons, many of our students didn’t — couldn’t — learn at their previous schools and they were ready to give up,” Shelmerdine said. “We’ve seen them come to HCA and build the confidence to learn after all, to enjoy their education after all, and to graduate after all.”
The school’s application to renew its charter cited above-average graduation rates for students who take more than four years to finish high school, above-average graduation rates for students with disabilities, and below-average dropout rates.
“In short, we see a school that is successful by the measure most important to both your mission and ours — successful students who become thriving citizens,” Shelmerdine said. “HCA produces graduates who have met their academic standards, become creative thinkers, and contribute their talents to society in meaningful ways — not the outcome some of them could envision before they walked through our doors.”
But the commission unanimously voted not to renew the charter without conditions, giving the reason that the school had failed to make sufficient progress toward performance expectations in the charter contract, specifically with regard to academic growth, chronic absenteeism and fiscal sustainability.
Next, the commission weighed whether to renew the school’s charter with conditions. The school would have to increase enrollment from 172 to 200 students and reduce chronic absenteeism to less than 18% by Feb. 28, 2023, among six conditions.
Clare Vickland, a consultant to the commission, said the conditions were both “absolutely essential” and would be “a challenge to complete.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy’s interim head of school, Mel Christensen Fletcher, made a final pitch in support of renewal with conditions, talking about how the school is working and would continue to work to meet the commission’s expectations.
But after much discussion and the addition of two more conditions, the commission voted 4-3 to renew the charter with conditions, one vote short of the supermajority.
“That means that we have exhausted our options for renewal,” said Wilson Hess, chair of the commission.
Hess thanked Harpswell Coastal Academy’s board, staff, students and supporters “for the valiant effort they have put forward over these years.” He said the commission’s staff would communicate with the school about next steps.
State law requires the commission to work with charter schools when they close to ensure “orderly transition of students and student records and proper disposition of school funds, property and assets.” After the school pays employees and creditors, any balance goes into the state treasury.
Established in 2013, Harpswell Coastal Academy serves grades five through 12 in the former West Harpswell School, a public elementary school that closed in 2011.
Correction: Because of an error by the commission in announcing the results of the vote on renewal with conditions, a previous version of this article incorrectly reported the vote as 4-3 against renewal with conditions. The vote was 4-3 in favor. The motion still failed, because renewal requires a supermajority.