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Charter School Commission delays vote to allow Harpswell Coastal Academy to consolidate campuses

The Maine Charter School Commission is delaying a vote on a consolidation plan that a Harpswell charter school says is necessary to allow it to continue operating.

In the face of enrollment challenges, Harpswell Coastal Academy is pursuing a plan to eliminate its campus in Brunswick and bring all of its students onto its other campus in Harpswell, which it says will provide it with a more sustainable financial future.

But the school needs approval from the Maine Charter School Commission. And without it, officials say it would be forced to close. At a meeting on Tuesday, teachers, parents and students urged the state to support the plan, with many calling in from their own classrooms.

Teacher and former student Karli Jo Clark said without the support she found at the school, she likely would have dropped out.

"There is no way, without this school, there is no way I would have gone to a single college class, let alone an accelerated bachelors degree in a matter of two and half years," Clark said.

But the school faced significant questions about its high rates of absenteeism, and Maine Charter School Commission staff recommended that members reject the consolidation plan, pointing to its enrollment challenges, a risky financial outlook and outstanding questions about the logistics of the one-campus model.

Despite those questions, several commission members appeared generally positive about the community's efforts to support the school, and felt the latest challenge had led to renewed energy from families, staff and community members. The commission ultimately voted to defer a decision on the plan until its next meeting, with some members wanting to see a more detailed proposal before deciding.

"I'm in a place where I'm not ready to say no to that. I'm not ready to say yes to consolidation. But I think I could get to yes a little bit sooner if I had more information," said member Nichi Farnham.

After the decision, school administrators told the commission that delaying a vote would pose a challenge, as the uncertainty about the school's future could make it more difficult to retain teachers and enroll new students in the weeks ahead.

On Thursday, Mel Christensen Fletcher, a Harpswell Coastal Academy teacher and administrator, said that the institution will continue to pursue the consolidation plan as it awaits another vote.

"We are still waiting on the commission’s vote, but we’re encouraged by their recognition of the work our community has done over the last month," Christensen Fletcher said. "While we work on providing the commission with additional information about our consolidation plans, we are continuing our enrollment and fundraising efforts. We’re appreciative of the opportunity to collaborate with the commission members and staff to bring our request back to a vote soon."

The commission is next scheduled to meet next month.