PORTLAND — Gov. Paul LePage struck back at critics of Portland’s charter school Wednesday, saying he was “offended” that they criticized the public school for hosting an event by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.
“I was shocked this week by Sen. (Justin) Alfond,” LePage told about 75 people at the annual Friedman Legacy Day Celebration, at the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, which will open this fall at 54 York St.
“(Alfond) offended me deeply when he attacked Baxter Academy simply because he’s had it easy. He had the best education money can buy,” said LePage, referring to Alfond’s private school education.
Alfond went to Dexter public schools through 10th grade and attended private schools in Massachusetts for his last two years of high school, when his family moved.
LePage, who was not on the list of scheduled speakers, made an unexpected appearance at Wednesday’s luncheon.
Alfond and other Democratic state legislators criticized Baxter’s leaders this week for hosting the luncheon with the conservative advocacy group, saying it politicizes the school and inflames an already volatile debate over charter schools 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 LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by some legislators and others who want to protect funding for traditional public schools.
Alfond called LePage’s criticism an ongoing pattern.
“When someone disagrees with his policies or politics, the governor’s response is not one that further advances the conversation but instead he personally attacks — often with attacks that are not based in reality,” he said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
He said the issue remains about public schools and political groups.
“Baxter Academy is a public charter school,” he said in the statement. “As a public school, it is inappropriate and frankly a disservice to their students for the school to choose a partnership, financial or otherwise, with a fringe political group. Students at Baxter want a school focused on a STEM education, not a political training camp for the Maine Heritage Policy Center.”
During the luncheon, Baxter Academy’s board Vice Chairwoman Allison Crean Davis told the audience that the school must raise funds for capital projects because charter schools cannot get state money for them.
In some states, grant money is available for startup costs. In Maine, charter schools get per-pupil state funds, which follow students from the school districts where they live.
The governor sent Alfond a letter Wednesday that was more sharply worded than his remarks at the event. It homes in on Alfond’s personal finances and education.
“Attacking a public charter school that provides choice for Maine students reeks of hypocrisy,” LePage wrote. “You were fortunate enough to choose from any number of private high schools, and you had the unlimited financial resources necessary to attend Noble and Greenough, an elitist private school in Massachusetts. … The students who choose to attend Baxter cannot afford the world-class education you received at a very expensive boarding school.”
Alfond is a grandson of the late Harold Alfond, who founded the Dexter Shoe Co. and used his fortune to create the Harold Alfond Foundation, which continues to primarily support athletic and educational efforts in Maine.
Baxter Academy is one of five charter schools approved in Maine. State law calls for a 10-school cap.
LePage told the audience that he supports school choice, and Baxter Academy. He recounted his parochial school education at St. Mary’s in Lewiston and gave examples of successful students at some of the state’s new charter schools.
“I’m determined that we bring education reform to Maine,” LePage said. “It’s vital we get away from the status quo in education.”
In his letter, he said Alfond is “pandering to school union bosses.”
“(You) and the school union bosses have been fighting tirelessly to deny Maine students the choice of where they can get the best education,” he wrote.
Alfond countered by pointing to his record as a lawmaker.
“My time in Augusta has been focused ensuring students in Maine have the strongest and best learning environment,” he said. “Whether it’s through teacher training, teacher accountability, bringing innovation into the classroom, or supporting proper funding of our public schools, my efforts are based on the idea that every student deserves a good, quality education.”
Baxter Academy officials said they accepted the offer to host the luncheon because the Maine Heritage Policy Center supports school choice and charter schools. The Friedman lunch is held at various locations nationwide in honor of the late Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who was an advocate of school choice.
Other speakers at the lunch were Amanda Clark, the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s education analyst, and Carol Weston, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a nonprofit, does not disclose its donors.
Baxter Academy officials have said the school is not seeking financial support from the group but they want to solicit the group’s members as individuals. Internal emails show that board members discussed the Friedman lunch as a way to reach out to the group and its members.
“The purpose of (the lunch) will be to cultivate a relationship with MHPC as an entity, as well as with its members as individuals,” Crean Davis, the board’s vice chairwoman, wrote in an email on June 21.
The school is scheduled to open with 130 students, It is renovating its leased space and meeting immediate fundraising goals.
The school has set a goal of raising $1 million by June 30.
At the lunch, Crean Davis discussed the need for Maine students to study science, technology, math and engineering to compete globally, and noted that Maine students’ scores in math lag some New England states.
“Charter schools might be part of that solution,” she said.
She did not make a direct appeal for any financial support from the attendees.
At Baxter, she said, “we need resources to do it. We need the support of all of Maine.”
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: