– By DENNIS HOEY
The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee was asked Thursday to authorize an inquiry into the financial viability of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a charter school that plans to open in Portland in the fall.
Committee members are scheduled to meet Tuesday to decide whether the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability should review the charter school’s finances and the standards that the Maine State Charter Commission used in considering its application.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, asked the committee to consider the matter.
Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for Eves, said, “The Government Oversight Committee and OPEGA are appropriate because they will take the politics out of it.”
Earlier Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage slammed Portland Mayor Michael Brennan for asking the Attorney General’s Office to “conduct a host of inappropriate and unlawful activities designed to harass and intimidate a proposed charter school.”
Attorney General Janet Mills turned down Brennan’s request to review Baxter Academy’s finances and suspend its contract negotiations with the Charter School Commission.
In a letter dated Wednesday, Mill told Brennan that she lacks authority to suspend contract negotiations. She said the Charter School Commission is the appropriate agency.
In response to Brennan’s request to Mills, and the Democratic leaders’ request to the oversight committee, Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the Charter School Commission, said Thursday night, “It is just plain grandstanding. I don’t get it. … We are doing the oversight and we are doing the vetting as deeply as we can possibly go. They’re just fishing for something because they don’t want charter schools.”
Lapoint and Allison Crean Davis, vice chairwoman of Baxter Academy’s board of directors, said they are concerned that a long inquiry could jeopardize the school’s plan to open Sept. 3.
About 160 students, including 21 from Portland, have indicated an interest in enrolling.
“I feel as though we have answered any questions that anyone would have,” Davis said. “I certainly don’t think we have anything to hide.”
School superintendents also need to know whether the charter school will open on schedule because they will have to budget funds for 2013-14 to cover the cost of sending students to Baxter Academy.
Baxter Academy’s founder and executive director, John Jaques, was fired this month amid allegations of financial mismanagement. After he was fired, Jaques refused to relinquish control of the school’s website. The school sued, and Jaques complied but countersued the board of directors.
Brennan, Portland’s mayor, then asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the allegations of financial mismanagement and whether the Charter School Commission properly reviewed the school’s finances.
The commission is scheduled to approve or deny Baxter Academy’s charter school application on April 8.
On Thursday, LePage, who is vacationing in Jamaica, issued a press release criticizing Brennan’s request as a “blatant attack” on Baxter Academy. The governor called the mayor’s request “the latest salvo in your campaign against the proposed school and charter schools generally.”
LePage also sent a scathing letter to Brennan, writing, “Mr. Mayor, it is stunningly cynical and shortsighted to try and stop students who are so interested in learning math and science from getting the education they crave and employers are requesting.
“I urge you to refocus your efforts on more productive activities and less on attacking some of Maine’s most motivated students. For example, you might consider taking the proposed 31 percent increase in the District’s Superintendent’s office budget and redirecting this funding to replicate Portland’s best science and technology programs district-wide.”
In his request to Attorney General Mills, Brennan said he had asked Portland’s superintendent to withhold payments to Baxter Academy for Portland students until a review of the school’s finances is complete.
“I’m not surprised that the governor would defend charter schools,” Brennan said Thursday evening. “I am sorry that he responded in such an aggressive way.”
Brennan said he was more surprised by the governor’s apparent willingness to overlook questions about the school’s finances.
“I’m uncomfortable sending hundreds of thousands of dollars of Portland taxpayer money to a school whose own directors have raised questions about the school’s financial management,” Brennan said.
Earlier this week, Alfond and Eves asked the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Education Committee to have the committee review Baxter Academy’s finances and the Charter School Commission’s role, said Brennan, a former Democratic legislator.
“As presiding officers of the Maine Legislature, we have the responsibility to ensure that the Maine State Charter Commission is conducting its business appropriately,” Alfond and Eves wrote. “We want to ensure that this school is managing its operations and spending Maine taxpayer dollars appropriately.”
Education Committee leaders forwarded that request to the Government Oversight Committee on Thursday.
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, a co-chair of the Education Committee, confirmed that he received a request from Alfond and Eves.
“We felt that the Government Oversight Committee and OPEGA would be better equipped to handle this,” he said. “We just didn’t feel like we had the right skill set to undertake this type of review. It wasn’t like we felt it was a hot potato.”
State House Bureau Writer Steve Mistler contributed to this report.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: