PORTLAND – Officials of Portland’s first charter school say criticism the school has drawn for hosting a luncheon with a conservative advocacy group is politically motivated, but emails and documents show that school officials discussed fundraising opportunities with the Maine Heritage Policy Center even before the school was invited to be involved with the event.

“Well! Just today in the fundraising committee we were talking about strengthening our relationship to MHPC, and here they are with a wonderful opportunity for us,” read an email May 31 from Baxter Academy board Chairwoman Kelli Pryor to other board members and school officials.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, which is due to open in the fall, is one of five charter schools approved in Maine. Charter schools receive public funding but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders, and are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to public school districts.

They have become a partisan issue in Maine, strongly backed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by legislators and others who want to protect public school funding.

Pryor’s email, obtained by the Portland Press Herald under Maine’s open records law, was sent on the day the Maine Heritage Policy Center asked to hold its annual Friedman Legacy Day Celebration, in honor of the late Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, at Baxter Academy. Friedman was an advocate of school choice.

Three weeks later, school officials discussed the luncheon at a fundraising committee meeting chaired by board Vice Chairwoman Allison Crean Davis.

“The purpose of this event will be to cultivate a relationship with MHPC as an entity, as well as with its members as individuals,” Crean Davis wrote in an email on June 21. “As a group and as individuals, the members of MHPC have the capacity to support Baxter Academy both financially and politically.”

The same language is in the minutes of a meeting of the Friends of Baxter Academy.

The luncheon, scheduled Wednesday at the school, will include presentations by Crean Davis; Amanda Clark, the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s education analyst; and Carol Weston, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. About 75 people are expected. The Maine Heritage Policy Center will provide a catered lunch.

SCHOOL CHOICE

On Monday, Pryor and Crean Davis emphatically denied that Baxter is seeking financial support from the Maine Heritage Policy Center and said the emails and documents don’t reflect the intent of the school.

Crean Davis said what she meant was not that Baxter Academy would accept money from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, but that it wanted to solicit the group’s members to financially support the school individually.

“We’re not a political organization,” Crean Davis said. “Where we overlap with (the Maine Heritage Policy Center) clearly is school choice. We’re an example of school choice.”

Officials with the Maine Heritage Policy Center said they do not make grants or political donations to any group, and are not offering Baxter financial support.

But Democratic leaders say the luncheon is too political for a public school.

“I’m surprised that this is how they’re starting as an organized school. It’s so political,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “It really aligns the identity of the charter school with the extreme agenda of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.”

In a prepared statement Monday, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said, “In its first public appearance, Baxter Academy has aligned itself with one of the most political fringe groups in the state. Doing so is not in the best interest of the students they are serving.”

FUNDRAISING GOALS

In an email sent Sunday to families of incoming Baxter Academy students, Pryor said the criticism is politically motivated and the school shouldn’t be “drawn into bitter old fights that would be better resigned to the past.”

“Once again, politicians are using Baxter Academy in struggles that have nothing to do with why we’ve all worked so hard to open this school,” she wrote. “This Wednesday, we are welcoming members of the Maine Heritage Policy Center to see what Baxter is all about. We appreciate that the organization has worked for school choice, and we’re glad to show them what school choice looks like at Baxter Academy.”

The school is scheduled to open this fall with 130 students. It is renovating its leased space at 54 York St. and working to meet immediate fundraising goals.

Most of the school’s private financial support so far has come from Portland lawyer Dan Amory and his family foundation, the Jebediah Fund, which donates to an array of educational and cultural organizations.

Amory has pledged $250,000 to Baxter Academy, with $100,000 requiring matching funds from the school by Aug. 31. School officials said Monday that they have not yet met that goal.

According to a fundraising letter, students have raised more than $8,000, and an online campaign aimed at raising $10,000 by Wednesday had raised just over $3,030 by Monday.

In mid-June, Amory gave the school a $200,000 loan, in addition to the donations. His son is a teacher at Baxter Academy and helped to create the school’s curriculum.

‘A POLITICAL FOOTBALL’

Private money going to public schools can be problematic, whether they’re traditional schools or charter schools, said a national education scholar.

“Any time you get into philanthropy for public institutions, you quickly get into gray areas,” said Rick Hess, director of educational policies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In Illinois, for example, charter schools are named for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who along with her husband underwrote charter schools there.

In a small state like Maine, where charter schools are just starting, the effect could be even more pronounced, he said.

Pryor’s email to parents said Baxter Academy had to focus on fundraising.

“No start-up funds are allocated to Maine charter schools, and to succeed, a school like ours must raise the funds to get rolling,” Pryor wrote.

A similar letter from Executive Director Carl Stasio was posted on the school’s Facebook page.

Crean Davis said she wasn’t aware of any Baxter Academy parents or community members being critical of the school hosting the event but she wasn’t surprised that the event caused a commotion.

“Nothing surprises me in terms of what happens when you’re trying to do something good for kids in education,” she said. “Others are using us as a political football, there’s no doubt.”

Spokesman Jonathan Haines said the Maine Heritage Policy Center would not comment on the controversy.

“What we’ve decided to do is let it be,” Haines said. “We don’t want political fallout and political ramifications to overshadow this event.”

The chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, which approves and oversees charter schools, did not return calls for comment.

William Shuttleworth, who recently stepped down from the commission, said he supports charter schools bringing in “diverse groups with a wide range of opinions,” but not if there is a political agenda.

He said the commission never had an extensive discussion about the relationship between political entities and charter schools when it created rules for charter schools.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com