PORTLAND — Portland Mayor Michael Brennan is asking the state attorney general to freeze all state contract negotiations with Baxter Academy for Technology and Science until the state investigates allegations of financial mismanagement at the school and how the commission reviewed the school’s application.
“I think it’s important for potential families and students (interested in attending Baxter) to know these issues have been raised, so that it’s not six months after September and they realize (the school) doesn’t have the finances to continue operating,” Brennan said Friday.
Charter School Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said Brennan’s call for an investigation amounted to “grandstanding” and said the mayor should have contacted the commission directly if he had questions about how the panel reviews and approves charter schools.
“We have a procedure, and we’re following that procedure,” Lapoint said Friday. “We’re not going to be blindsided or care that someone has blindsided us. … If they knew the facts, they wouldn’t go off the deep end.”
The request is the latest challenge for the school, which is scheduled to open in the fall. At least 160 students have expressed interest in the school, but that was before the upheaval that ensued when the founder and executive director of Baxter Academy was fired for what the board called “a pattern of mismanagement.”
John Jaques said he was fired because the father of a member of the school’s advisory board promised to donate as much as $250,000 if Jaques was no longer in charge.
Jaques denied any financial mismanagement and sharply criticized the board of director members for saying he misled them about the availability of a $500,000 line of credit that was critical to the school’s financial stability.
The board sued Jaques to make him turn over school property that he still controlled, including the school’s online assets. He complied, but countersued for defamation and is seeking damages.
The events “have raised serious questions about its viability as well as concerns over the application process and subsequent approval granted by the Maine Charter School Commission,” Brennan wrote in a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills.
Specifically, Brennan asked Mills to review:
• whether school finances were mismanaged;
• whether the charter commission conducted “an appropriate review” of the school’s financial situation;
• whether commissioners advised or assisted the school in an appropriate manner.
If the attorney general doesn’t investigate, Brennan said, the Legislature or education commission should take it up because so much public money is at stake.
“It seems to me the AG or the Legislature should be reviewing the situation and also be asking the question of the charter commission, ‘Why did you let this go forward?’ There needs to be a more rigorous review process,” Brennan said. He also wants a clear process for filing a formal appeal of the commission’s decision, if they grant a charter to Baxter.
Baxter Academy has received preliminary approval from the Maine Charter School Commission to open this fall, under a state law passed in 2011. The law caps the number at 10 schools in 10 years. Two have opened already.
The commission is scheduled to discuss the school’s status at a meeting Monday, and commission members have asked the board to review the recent upheaval. Lapoint noted that the school still needs further approval from the commission before it can open.
One of the key hurdles is making sure there are enough students. The school has already received about 160 letters of interest, but at least 140 students must sign letters of commitment to attend the school. Those letters have not yet been sent out to interested students.
Brennan has long been an opponent of the school. Baxter is expected to cost the local school district about $500,000, as state funds normally allocated to the district will instead follow students who attend Baxter. Brennan said in his letter that he has asked Superintendent Manny Caulk not to pay any city funds to the state until the attorney general’s investigation is complete.
“As mayor of Portland, I have a responsibility to all Portland students to ensure that they receive a high-quality education in a stable instruction environment. I also have an obligation to the taxpayers to make sure that city funds are spent appropriately,” Brennan said in a statement. “I am hopeful that the attorney general’s review will answer the questions I have regarding the management and approval process for this school.”
Baxter officials will cooperate with any investigation, said board Vice Chairwoman Allison Crean Davis. “We certainly don’t have anything to hide,” she said.
Crean Davis said the board believes the fiscal and management issues related to Jaques are behind them, and they are focused on moving forward with the school.
“I understand that charter schools in general, and this one in particular, have been the subject of a lot of political discussion. It’s part of the process, but our focus can’t be on that,” Crean Davis said. “Our focus has to be on the parents and the students and opening the school. All of that is just kind of noise. Sometimes it’s noise we have to deal with, but it can’t be our focus.”
Lapoint said Brennan “seems intent on not having any charter school” in Portland.
“He’s going to protect Portland no matter what, instead of joining us to work things to get the best for students,” she said. “This to me is grandstanding and it’s not in the best interest of Portland and of charter schools.”
Lapoint said the commission spent months setting up the rules and expectations of the commission on how to review and approve charter schools. Commission members visited other states, consulted national organizations and used a consultant to come up with the process.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said it had received Brennan’s letter and had no comment.
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: