AUGUSTA  A proposed charter school in downtown Portland will undergo more scrutiny before the project will move forward.

The Maine Charter School Commission delayed action on an application by Baxter Academies of Maine, one of four groups angling for state charters under a year-old law that allows charter schools in Maine for the first time.

A second application for a 50-student charter school in Cornville failed after the commission voted down a motion to begin negotiating the charter contract with the stipulation that project supporters demonstrate that the school could remain financially stable if it fell short of enrollment projections.

Similarly, members of the authorizing commission wanted more financial information from Baxter Academies before green-lighting contract deliberations that could allow the school to open this year.

Both moves reflected ambivalence by a board charged with authorizing 10 charter schools over the next 10 years. The commission began reviewing applications in May with the hope approving some for the upcoming school year.

Board members Monday repeatedly expressed concerns about the short window to sign off on business plans that may well determine the viability of the charter schools.

“We want good charter schools,” board member Richard Barnes said. “We’re only allowed to authorize 10 in 10 years. I’m worried that if we stumble here, they (the schools) will stumble.”

The politics of charter schools has added pressure to commission deliberations. Gov. Paul LePage, an avid supporter of charter schools, in mid-June wrote a letter to the commission urging it to approve applications for two virtual schools. The governor wrote that the board had the time — and a mandate — to expand educational opportunities.

“If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state’s expectations, I urge their resignation,” LePage wrote.

Nonetheless, the board ultimately voted to delay reviewing the virtual school applications until next year. Commission members rejected LePage’s assertion that its reluctance to approve applications reflected the influence of interest groups traditionally opposed to charter schools, public school districts and teachers unions.

In the case of Baxter Academies, members of the commission had several concerns, including whether renovations to the proposed building at 54 York St. would carry into the school year. A bigger concern, board members said, was whether Baxter Academies was financially stable.

The charter commission delayed a final vote on the application until later this month. John Jaques, executive director of Baxter Academies, said the school could still operate this year if the commission votes on the charter application by July 17.

Jaques expressed frustration with the commission for “moving the target,” a reference to commission members’ requests for updated budget data if the school falls short of its 160-student projections.
Baxter Academies has already presented adjusted budget numbers for 100 students.

In an interview after the meeting Jaques said concerns about the proposed school budget were overblown. He said science, technology, engineering mathematics schools, or STEM schools, enjoyed widespread support from national political and business leaders. Such support, he said, would ensure that Baxter would receive adequate funding.

“It’s very tough to attract funding for schools that have not been approved,” Jaques said.

The board decision follows the Baxter Academies announcement last week that it secured a $500,000 line of credit secured by an anonymous benefactor from Tennessee to assist with the start-up costs.
Supporters of the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science say the anonymous loan should reassure state officials that the school would be financially sound.

Critics said the loan from SunTrust Bank of Knoxville, Tenn., obtained just two weeks ago, shows desperation and raises questions about the validity of the school’s financial plan.
Jaques remained confident Monday that the academy would be approved later this month.

The future was more bleak for the Cornville Regional Charter School, a proposal to educate 50 students from kindergarten through grade 6 at the former Cornville Elementary school.
Supporters had hoped the commission would be receptive to the group’s 650-page application.

Some board members said they were inclined to move the Cornville into the contract phase. However, others worried that the proposal focused too much on the value of small-school education and not enough on innovation.

The proposal was led by parents who hoped to reopen the elementary school after School Administrative District 54 moved to close it in 2010. Cornville residents later voted to shutter the school rather than pay $597,000.

Commission member Jana Lapoint worried that accepting the Cornville proposal would set a precedent for other applications hoping to reopen rural schools. She also expressed concerns that the charter school could hurt SAD 54.

Despite the vote the board welcomed proponents of the Cornville charter school to reapply next year.
Justin Belanger, chairman of the Cornville charter board, was not optimistic.

He said the Cornville board had received 55 written commitments from parents hoping to send their children to the school in the fall. Despite that support, Belanger worried that it would be difficult to convince taxpayers to pay the $25,000 needed to keep the shuttered building heated and maintained for another year.  

“It’s going to be a difficult thing to tell 55 people tonight that this isn’t happening,” he said. “The board worked their (butts) off, working hundreds, maybe thousands of hours on this. It was a lot of money and a lot of time.”

Last week the commission voted to begin contract deliberations for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a 40-student school in Hinckley, Maine. The academy is slated to become the state’s first charter school.

A charter school is a public school that receives public funding but is created and operated by local parents, teachers and community leaders, yet largely exempt of the rules and regulations of the area school district.

Supporters say charters fit niche students and can offer a tailored curriculum that public schools can’t. Opponents counter that many charter schools fail due to faulty business plans and that they can hurt public schools by siphoning students and public funding.