The Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors wants the town to pay up to $800,000 to buy back its campus, more than five times the $150,000 sale price when the academy bought the property from the town in 2015.
Harpswell Coastal Academy says it needs the money to pay off debt and meet other obligations as the decade-old charter school prepares to close. Harpswell voters will decide whether to pay the sum at the annual town meeting on March 11.
The Harpswell Select Board revealed the price at its meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16.
“The town team attempted to get the best deal it could for the town, but HCA was clear that it had financial obligations, including debt, as part of the dissolution process,” Select Board Chair Kevin Johnson said.
According to school and town officials, HCA needs an amount “not to exceed” $800,000 to settle its obligations. The school has not determined an exact figure, but agreed to $800,000 as a cap.
Eiane said that because of the school’s obligations, “there was not much negotiation possible.”
The Select Board makes recommendations to the voters on most questions at town meeting, but opted to send the school question to voters without a recommendation.
After the meeting, all three members of the board said that as individuals, they do not support the purchase.
Town officials have said it would cost millions of dollars to renovate the building for reuse. Committees have discussed the building’s potential for affordable housing, a community center, or office space.
Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of the HCA Board of Directors, said in an email that the board “has a fiscal responsibility to make sure the school can take care of its community and meet all its financial obligations, including the extra costs associated with the closing of the school.”
“The figure of $800,000 is well below the assessed value of the property,” Shelmerdine said. “We are very grateful to the town of Harpswell for their generosity and long-term support of HCA. We feel we have a special relationship with the town, and would love to have it regain control of the property, while at the same time fulfilling our fiscal responsibilities.”
If voters approve the purchase, the town is proposing to take $400,000 from surplus and borrow the other $400,000 with a 10-year bond. The town would also ask voters for $30,000 to cover maintenance costs.
Johnson, a retired home builder, said that he toured the building with a town committee. “The bones are good,” he said. But he called $800,000 a “crazy amount of money” for the property.
The property at 9 Ash Point Road encompasses 7.73 acres, according to town records. The building dates to 1964 and, with a 1989 addition, totals almost 17,000 square feet.
The property has a town-assessed value of $1,022,200 — $928,200 for the building and other improvements, plus $94,000 for the land.
But members of the town’s Affordable Housing Working Group have expressed concern that, if the town does not buy the building, it could remain vacant and become an eyesore and a safety hazard.
Harpswell Coastal Academy, a public charter school for grades five through 12, will close at the end of the school year after the Maine Charter School Commission declined to renew its charter in October 2022. The commission cited concerns about the school’s academic and financial performance in its decision.
In November 2022, HCA offered to sell the campus to the town and the sides entered negotiations. The town has a right of first refusal, a condition of the 2015 sale to HCA. HCA still owes the town $30,000 of the $150,000 purchase price.
Before HCA, the building was home to West Harpswell School, a K-5 public elementary school that closed in 2011.
After Thursday’s meeting, members of the Select Board expressed disappointment that the school will close, alongside reservations about the asking price.
Johnson said a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Working Group estimated that it would cost $300 to $400 per square foot to renovate the building. At 17,000 square feet, the price tag would range from $5.1 million to $6.8 million, more than the cost to build new. An $800,000 price tag pushes a project further out of reach.
Select Board member Jane Covey said, “I don’t think the town is in the business of owning real estate that it does not know what to do with.”
Johnson said he knows many students who benefited from HCA’s unique approach to education.
Select Board member Dave Chipman called the shutdown of the school “a real shame.”