AUBURN — Board members of a proposed charter school in Lewiston-Auburn denied Friday that the school would have any ties to the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, who is at the heart of political upheaval in Turkey.
“The school we are proposing here will be a Maine public charter school, and from the beginning it has no affiliation with anybody or any group or any religious, ethnic, social or cultural group or organization,” Huseyin Kara, a board member of the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, told the Maine Charter School Commission. “To call it a Gulen school is inaccurate.”
Kara is chief development director of the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Mass., which is the model for the school proposed in Lewiston-Auburn.
The Charter School Commission, which is considering applications for three charter schools, interviewed Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School board members for three hours Friday, then held a three-hour public hearing, which drew critics and backers of the proposal.
When pressed after the meeting to explain how the schools deny any ties to Gulen, Eyup Sener, the Northeast director of Turkic American Associations, said the schools – and others in the United States – have backers who are “inspired” by Gulen, not “affiliated” with him.
This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a corruption investigation and a recent corruption and bribery scandal have been orchestrated by an Islamic movement led by Gulen. Erdogan said Gulen’s followers have risen to key positions in Turkey’s judiciary and police, and want to harm the government before local elections in March, according to The Associated Press.
Followers of Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, have been involved in starting at least 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to investigations by The New York Times, “60 Minutes,” USA Today and other news organizations.
The schools are often top performers and have secular curriculums, but they have drawn criticism for their lack of transparency, their hiring and financial practices and concerns about their motivation, which experts say has as much to do with shaping the evolution of Turkey as it does with educating young Americans.
News reports have focused on the number of charter school instructors who come from Turkey, and on the financial relationships between the schools and vendors that are led or owned by people from Turkey.
At one point Friday, commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint held up a half-inch-thick yellow folder, saying it contained many similar reports that were emailed or sent to the commissioners.
Other commissioners pressed Kara on how the school would hire teachers and solicit bids for services. They also noted that the group still needs board members to handle financial and legal affairs.
Kara said the organizers intend to hire teachers locally and would look overseas only if they could not find enough qualified teacher. That school would use Maine-approved vendors or put contracts out for bids, and the group would hire a lawyer and fill out the board if the commission approved the new school.
The commission will decide March 4 which of three proposed charter schools can open this fall. In addition to the proposal in Lewiston-Auburn, two virtual, online charter schools are being considered.
Five charter schools, publicly funded but exempt from many of the requirements of traditional public schools, are operating in Maine now. State law says that as many as 10 can operate.
The Lewiston-Auburn group does not have a school site, but has narrowed its search to four locations and plans to put modular buildings on the site it chooses. The school would not have a cafeteria, but would hire a caterer, Kara said.
Kara said the new school would be similar to other Turkish-led charter schools partly because he and other leaders have moved from place to place, opening new schools and drawing on their experience.
Commission member Heidi Sampson said she looked at “many, many” documents from various Turkish-run charter schools in the United States and Canada, and found that the language in certain documents was verbatim. Kara attributed it to Turkish educators moving to new places and using previous material.
After the meeting, he said the connections between Turkish educators create an unofficial network of schools but there are no direct ties between the schools.
Kara worked at a Turkish-led charter school in Ohio and, before joining the Pioneer Charter School of Science, was executive director of New Jersey-based Apple Educational Services, which provides schools with services such as coaching for teachers and administrators and student data tracking software. The Pioneer school uses Apple Educational Services for its student tracking software, Kara said.
The Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School would open with 180 students, with 60 each in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. It would eventually grow to serve 360 students in grades 7-12.
The school would have a uniform dress code, and a maximum teacher-student ratio of 1-to-13. Teachers would be paid about $36,000 a year, and instruction would include Saturday sessions and after-school tutoring as needed.
At Friday’s public hearing, several students from the Pioneer school described the rigorous academics and praised the teachers and the school.
But Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said he opposes the plan and had checked to see if people cited in the application as having written letters of support had done so. He said he found several who had met with the school’s backers but had not written letters, including former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, Lewiston Development Director Lincoln Jeffers and Bates College professor Mara Tieken.
“(This) raises concern about the truthfulness of what is in this application,” Webster said.
Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at: