PORTLAND – With classes scheduled to start in two weeks, Portland’s first charter school has failed an inspection for a certificate of occupancy for the second time.
Citing electrical and fire-safety issues, city inspectors denied a certificate of occupancy Wednesday for the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science at 54 York St.
School officials said they still are confident that classes will start on schedule Sept. 4 in the renovated building.
City inspectors noted problems involving handicap access, tests for alarms and sprinklers that were not done, some wiring work, and incomplete firewalls and doors.
Despite those issues, the general contractor, school officials and the chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission said they think the building will be ready to open in two weeks.
“This is a 120-year-old building and we’re chipping away at it. There’s no question in my mind we’ll be open on (Sept. 4) and it will be safe,” said Executive Director Carl Stasio.
The charter school, one of five approved by the state, is scheduled to open with 135 students and about a dozen teachers and administrators.
The building failed its inspection on Aug. 12 because of problems with fire and smoke barriers, which are designed to slow the spread of fire through a building.
Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city, said Portland will issue a certificate of occupancy after such life-safety problems have been fixed and the building has passed inspection. She said a follow-up inspection will be scheduled when the building owner believes the issues have been addressed.
Baxter Academy is leasing the building from Rufus Deering Co., which owns the adjacent lumber yard. Rufus Deering bought the historic building, which was built in 1900, for $750,000 in 1998, according to city records.
Dan LaBrie, a senior vice president of Rufus Deering, is the general contractor for the job of turning the building into a school.
LaBrie said Wednesday that it is not unusual to have multiple inspections for a project. Clegg agreed.
“This is common practice in commercial construction,” LaBrie said. “You have several inspections, and each time you get closer. That’s how you know we’re all on the same page and we’re headed in the right direction.”
LaBrie said he believes that the remaining issues will be addressed and a certificate of occupancy will be issued in time for the school to open on schedule.
Baxter Academy has already missed a state-imposed deadline of Aug. 3 to have its facility ready.
Under Charter School Commission rules, new charter schools must complete all required renovations 30 days before the start of the school year. They are supposed to have certificates of occupancy at least 15 days before opening. For Baxter Academy, that deadline passed Monday.
Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the commission, said Aug. 19 was “not a deadline that is hard and fast.”
“It’s only a date that we gave them that would make it easier to get everything in place,” she said. “We knew perfectly well it would have to be a moving target.”
The school has been under scrutiny since March, when the board fired the school’s founder and executive director. That led to new donor financing, legal disputes and calls for a state investigation.
The dispute also prompted the Charter School Commission to halt contract talks with the school and ask its board to lay out its plans for opening. The commission approved the school’s charter in May.
Lapoint said Baxter Academy officials have been in near constant contact with the commission about the work on the building. She said it’s “not even a question” that it will be ready to open to students.
“If something happens, all they have to do is let us know what and why things are being held up,” she said.
Three new charter schools are scheduled to open in Maine this fall.
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 schools.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: