AUGUSTA — Portland’s first charter school won approval Monday to move forward with its plan to open this fall, in a unanimous vote by the Maine Charter School Commission.
“I am so excited,” said Alec Gagne, 13, of Westbrook, who plans to attend the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. “I’m bouncing off the walls.”
Next, however, may be a state investigation of the application process for Baxter Academy and other charter schools.
Baxter Academy received initial approval from the Charter School Commission in November, before the school fired its founder and executive director, alleging financial mismanagement.
Monday’s vote allows school officials and a subcommittee of the commission to work out the details of the charter school contract. That contract will require a final vote by the commission, likely in May.
Monday’s vote was Baxter Academy’s biggest practical hurdle to a fall opening. As the final votes in the 6-0 decision were read, cheers broke out in the basement room of the State House, where a dozen students and parents awaited the outcome.
“I’m going to Baxter Academy in the fall!” shouted Brianna Keliehor, 13, of Gorham, who is now home schooled.
Commission member Richard Barnes noted that he was voting for Baxter Academy despite voting against it in the past.
“I think there are a whole lot of things that have totally turned around in this proposal,” he said, but school officials must make certain changes before he will vote for final approval.
He called for the board to hire a new executive director and change the school’s bylaws to bar anyone with a financial interest in the school from serving on the board of directors. School officials told the commission that they plan to address its concerns.
The school’s financial stability has been under scrutiny since the commission began reviewing its application nearly a year ago. In March, the board of directors fired John Jaques, the school’s founder and executive director.
Jaques initially refused to relinquish control of the school’s website and other password-protected online assets. The school sued Jaques to get him to turn over the material. He complied but then countersued, claiming defamation, and is seeking punitive damages.
Jaques said the board fired him because a donor insisted on it. The donor, Dan Amory, an attorney who is the father of a Baxter Academy advisory board member, later confirmed that he wouldn’t have made the $250,000 donation if Jaques had remained as executive director.
The board made the donation public in the same news release that announced a search for a new executive director. Board members have denied that the donation was tied to Jaques’ firing, citing instead a “pattern of financial mismanagement.”
In late March, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan asked the Maine Attorney General’s Office to investigate the allegations of financial mismanagement and determine whether the Charter School Commission properly reviewed the school’s finances. Attorney General Janet Mills declined, saying she lacks the authority.
At that point, Democratic legislative leaders asked the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to initiate a formal review of Baxter Academy’s charter application and its financial viability.
Emily Cain, D-Orono, the Government Oversight Committee’s Senate chair, said the committee will take up the issue Friday. Such a review would be done by the Legislature’s investigative agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
“The questions that were raised about the (charter school) application process itself remain, regardless of the outcome of today’s vote,” Cain said Monday.
The issue is part of a political debate between Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a supporter of charter schools, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Maine’s charter schools are publicly funded. The cost of educating their students is paid by the school districts in which the students live. Charter schools can also raise money to support educational operations. School district officials have said that charter schools cut into their budgets because the state subsidy for each student follows the student to the new school.
Tammy Gagne said her eyes teared up as the commission voted Monday to approve Baxter Academy. “It’s finally a chance to exhale,” she said. “My son has wanted this so badly he could taste it.”
Laurie McCammon, who leads the school’s volunteers, said the vote was “a dream come true.”
“Because it was so hard, we really rallied together,” said McCammon, referring to the upheaval from Jaques’ firing. “But this is what matters,” she said, gesturing toward the group of students talking excitedly after the vote.
She and other prospective Baxter Academy families planned to meet Monday night at the school, at 54 York St., which is being renovated to accommodate students.
“I’m just so happy for the students,” said Kelli Pryor, the school board’s chairwoman, who has two daughters who plan to attend the school. “They’ve been on such a roller-coaster ride.”
Pryor and Michele LaForge, the recently hired head of school, said they will move quickly to hire teachers.
The school plans to finalize its enrollment in the next few weeks. Prospective students — about 160 sent letters of interest — must sign letters of commitment to be enrolled. There is also a small waiting list. The school must have commitments from at least 140 students to open.
Members of the Charter School Commission praised the school during Monday’s meeting and in final comments before the vote. Several referred specifically to the turmoil of recent months.
“It is apparent that hard times may bring out the best in people,” said Chairwoman Jana Lapoint. “Baxter Academy has come full circle and proven their worth to become a charter school.”
Barnes sounded the most cautious note.
“There’s still a lot of additional work to be done,” he said. “There are still going to be people out there against it. (Baxter Academy is) not going into a former school. … They’re going into a facility with a lot of unknowns, and they’re probably going to have a difficult first year.”
LaForge said the school plans to “train” students how to behave off campus and how to navigate Portland, particularly since many will come from more rural communities.
Baxter Academy plans to open with ninth- and 10th-graders and add grades 11 and 12 over the next two years. Based on the letters of interest, it expects to draw students from about two dozen communities in southwestern Maine. It stands to have about 20 students from Portland, 11 from South Portland, nine each from Freeport and Westbrook, eight each from Lewiston-Auburn and Gorham, and five or fewer students from each of the other districts.
Baxter Academy is still unclear on the details of providing transportation and, without a final enrollment list, it doesn’t know how many students may need special services, which could add to its costs.
“I wake up every morning and think, ‘I hope they let me do this,’”said LaForge, who will teach math at Freeport High School through the end of this school year. “Because I know I can do this. And it’s going to be great.”
Noel Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: