TOPSHAM, Maine — Harpswell Coastal Academy students can be members of interscholastic sports teams at Mt. Ararat High School and other School Administrative District 75 schools.
SAD 75 includes Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham.
That resolution came at the SAD 75 board meeting Thursday night, which saw several parents speak out after their children had been denied participation on spring sports teams last week.
Those who spoke said their children last week were denied the opportunity to try out for SAD 75’s spring sports teams that have cutoffs in the number of participants.
After an executive session called by the school board to consult with its attorney, the number of participants allowed for SAD 75 sports teams was increased to account for participation by Harpswell Coastal Academy students, resolving the issue in the short term.
After the meeting Thursday, SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith said the issue arose about a month ago, when late-bus drivers discovered there were students from the charter school riding the bus home because they were playing in sports programs in the middle and high schools. He contacted the academy’s head of schools, John D’Anieri, to say the district and charter school needed to craft a written cost-sharing agreement.
Harpswell Academy opened in 2013, two years after the state passed a law allowing public charter schools. It is one of the first five public charter schools in Maine.
The statute states charter school students can participate in their home district’s sports if their school doesn’t offer the sport and if the district has the capacity to accommodate them, Smith said. A written agreement is required.
The Maine Principals Association advised him that districts will allow their own students to try out for the team and — if additional slots are available — allow charter school students to participate, Smith said. He added that the state Department of Education has not provided the district with an interpretation.
Smith and D’Anieri have agreed this is an issue that should be resolved at the state level and not between one charter school and the school district.
Andrew Mason, the father of an HCA student, told The Times Record that his daughter showed up for softball tryouts last week and was turned away.
“It’s kind of disappointing as we’re trying to work this out that we’re adopting the idea of being exclusionary instead of inclusionary,” Mason told the school board Thursday. “Why do we have to do something different now that we didn’t do last year when we have time over the summer. We have ways to get this fixed — to negotiate, to work it out.”
“There seems to be a barrier that exists between SAD 75 and Harpswell Coastal Academy, and it’s our children who are the collateral damage,” Wesley Withers, another HCA parent, said, adding he hoped to “encourage everyone here to realize that both of our schools need each other.”
D’Anieri said the many collaborations with SAD 75 “have always been on the basis that these are our kids, not our kids and their kids.”
D’Anieri said he was on hand when the Legislature debated the proposed charter school statute.
“The intent of the statute … was to ensure that a student would not lose the ability to participate in interscholastic sports if they chose to attend the public charter schools,” D’Anieri said. “It was specifically geared to say: ‘We do not think it’s a good idea for public schools to have to start their own interscholastic sports there; the system is already built for interscholastic sports, so let’s make it so that those kids can play interscholastic sports in their district of residence.’”
He read an interpretation by Debra Plowman, director of Police and Programs for the state Department of Education: “Implementation of statute by agencies is given ‘great deference’ by the courts of Maine. The position of the Department of Education with respect to ‘capacity’ is not that of the attorney for the district. The position of the department on the capacity continues to be such that as long as the district does not have to create another position, buy another uniform or arrange for additional transportation, then the district has capacity for all students to try out.”
After the meeting, Smith said parents of students who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities “really recognize how valuable those are, and how much playing time kids get and don’t get is always an issue.”
The board will work to find a long-term solution.
“The law is very clear that charter schools can create their own sports programs. One of the advantages I believe that our system offers is that we offer comprehensive educational services,” Smith said. “We offer everything from Advanced Placement programs to band and music. Those are some of the things that I think are reasons why students should be in the traditional public school system setting.”
Samantha Warren, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email to The Times Record on Thursday that “the department and its attorney believe the law makes very clear that a student who lives in the district but is attending a public charter school deserves the same opportunity to try out for a sports team as their neighbors who still attend that school and compete for the same spots on the team at the same time.
“A school administrative unit or noncharter public school may not impose additional requirements on a public charter school student to participate in extracurricular activities that are not imposed on full-time students of the non-charter school,” she added.