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Commission approves plan to keep Harpswell charter school open by consolidating campuses

The Maine Charter School Commission has approved a consolidation plan for a Harpswell school that administrators say will allow it to stay open.

The Harpswell Coastal Academy had asked the commission to approve a proposal for the school to consolidate its two campuses to just one. Schools officials said that will make it financially sustainable, and said that without the change, the school would have to close.

As part of the plan, the school would purchase and install three yurts on its Harpswell campus, which would house students and be used as classroom space for the near future. School officials touted that the plan would allow the school to reengage with its place-based, expeditionary learning model. And several students and alumni pushed for the proposal in recent months, saying that the bonds that they had formed with staff helped them to stay in class and graduate.

But charter commission staff initially recommended against the plan, noting that the school has a risky financial outlook and has continually failed to meet enrollment targets. And at a meeting on Tuesday, commission member Victoria Kornfield largely agreed with that recommendation, saying that she still had concerns about finances, the security of the yurts and worries about past performance.

"I think if we vote yes on this, and they don't come through on what they promised, which, the plans are wonderful. But past performance says that they're not going 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. But there is nothing in the past that tells us it is going to happen."

Yet Kornfield proved to be the lone dissenting vote on the commission, which ultimately approved the plan in a 4-1 vote. Commission member Shelley Reed said that while the school had substantial work ahead, there are signs that the entire school community is working together towards goals.

"I feel like, finally, you're all pushing the rock up the hill. And it's my hope that the rock doesn't roll back on you," she said.

Members said they were also impressed that the school had raised $160,000 in just a few months. Harpswell Coastal Academy Board Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine says that has helped to reinforce the importance of the school to the local community.

"I think that's been, beyond the dollars, has some effect on our ability to maintain a closer relationship with the businesses and families," she said.