AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s oversight committee decision Tuesday on whether to launch an inquiry into a proposed Portland charter school may hinge on lawmakers’ ability to depoliticize a fierce education debate that has loomed over the legislative session and influenced the last election.
At issue is the financial viability and vetting of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a proposed charter school scheduled to open this fall. The financial stability of the school has been under scrutiny since the Maine Charter School Commission began reviewing its application nearly a year ago.
However, internal turmoil at Baxter, including a legal dispute between the school’s board of directors and its founders, has shoved the commission’s review into an ongoing political debate between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Democratic legislative leaders say the charged politics of charter schools is the reason they’ve asked the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to initiate a formal review of Baxter’s charter application and its financial viability.
Such a review, if it happens, would be conducted by the Legislature’s investigative agency, the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability, or OPEGA.
The agency has recently played a prominent role in high-profile audits of the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Housing Authority. Both inquiries probed allegations of financial malfeasance and theft of public dollars. In the case of the turnpike authority, the claims proved true, landing Paul Violette, the authority’s former director, in prison for 3½ years on a theft conviction.
Democratic politicians were the target of both inquiries. However, the 12-member oversight committee, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, supported both audits.
A bipartisan vote will also be needed for the Baxter inquiry to proceed. In order to conduct a rapid review that doesn’t delay Baxter’s plan to open in the fall, two-thirds of the panel will need to vote for it.
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chair of the committee, said Friday that the turnpike authority investigation showed the oversight committee can insulate itself from partisan politics.
Cain acknowledged the party tensions surrounding charter schools, but said the review isn’t about “value or impact of charter schools.”
“We’ve been asked to look at the policies and practices that have gone into the Baxter Academy application based on things that have come to light in the press or through their (Baxter’s) own conversations in (the charter commission review),” she said. “All of that raises concerns. We’re at the beginning of this charter school application process, and we want people to have confidence in the outcome.”
MORE POLITICAL COMPLEXITIES
Cain said the oversight committee has proved that questions about procedure and program integrity can occur without undermining the policy or agency.
However, the politics of the charter school debate may be different.
The conflict has roots that extend to the previous Republican-controlled Legislature, which in 2011 enacted a law that made Maine the 41st state to allow charter schools.
In Maine, charter schools are publicly funded. The cost of educating students is paid for by the school districts in which the students live. Charter schools can also raise money to support educational operations, and teachers do not have to be members of the Maine Education Association — the state’s teachers union.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a charter school critic and former Democratic state senator, asked Attorney General Janet Mills last month to review the school’s finances and suspend its negotiations with the charter school commission, which must approve charter school applications.
Mills declined, saying she lacked the authority. LePage jumped into the dispute with a news release in which he criticized Brennan’s “blatant attack” on the proposed school.
CHARTER POLITICS SPUR DONATIONS
Many Democratic lawmakers voted for the charter school law in 2011. However, the party’s allies in the public education sector used charter schools as a wedge issue in the 2012 legislative election, which saw Democrats retake control of the State House.
The Maine Education Association spent $164,498 on the election and donated money to two of the most active political action committees of 2012, Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools and the Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class.
The MEA diverted $157,846 to the Middle Class PAC, which in turn spent more than $758,000 attempting to elect Democrats in more than two dozen legislative races.
S. Donald Sussman, the majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, gave $60,000 to the Middle Class PAC, according to campaign finance records.
Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, a member of the Government Oversight Committee, benefited from some of that spending by the Middle Class PAC, which targeted Johnson’s race 17 times. Republican Sen. Edward Youngblood of Brewer, also on the committee, was at the other end of the PAC spending. Youngblood’s race was targeted 12 times by the Middle Class PAC.
Youngblood did not return calls or messages seeking comment.
HOLDING THE HEAT AT BAY
Republicans and LePage haven’t forgotten who spent heavily to defeat their colleagues. The governor and Republican operatives have said repeatedly that Democratic leaders are beholden to the same interests groups — particularly the state’s teachers union — that helped bring them into power.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, also sits on the oversight committee. He said Friday that he hadn’t decided if the Baxter review was necessary. Harvell, however, echoed Cain’s comments that he thought the committee could hold off the politics.
“I think it’s going to be as hard as we decide to make it,” he said. “There’s no doubt that these charter schools have been a fight. It represents a change, a philosophical difference, it represents a political difference.”
Harvell noted that the teachers union endorsed few, if any, Republicans. “They were part of coalitions that beat us in fairly significant Democratic elections,” he said. “But when the venting is over, you know, some people put that kind of thing aside better than others.”
He added, “From our side it’s not any kind of payback. It’s that we’re going to defend the changes we made.”
Despite all the rhetoric and legislative and electoral politics, Cain remained confident the oversight committee will shut out the rhetorical din.
“I expect that we’ll have a positive conversation,” she said.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: