Despite a suggestion by a member of the Maine Charter School Commission that the Attorney General’s Office investigate “material falsehoods” in an application for a charter school, it’s not clear whether the commission will make such a request.
At issue is whether organizers of the proposed Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School actually had “letters of support” from people listed in their application. Several people on the list, from Lewiston’s economic development director to a Bates College professor, have said they did not write letters.
The commission voted unanimously Monday to reject the application. During their discussion, two of the seven commissioners raised the idea that the false information was egregious and they felt misled.
“I can’t tell you how incensed I am,” said Commissioner Ande Smith. “When I read (the application) it made a difference … these were from thought leaders in the community and I thought, ‘Oh, this (school) has traction.’ ”
Commission member Heidi Sampson said the school’s backers had “effectively destroyed any potential for building trust with the false representation of individuals such as the city’s (former) mayor. Is that not an illegal offense?”
Assistant Attorney General Sarah Forster, who works with the Charter School Commission, said Tuesday that she did not know immediately whether lying on an application is a crime. She said she would look into the matter if the commission requested it.
Forster noted that since the application was turned down, it isn’t clear that the situation merits an investigation.
Had it been granted a charter, the school eventually would have received state money, she said, and state funding could have a bearing on whether the Attorney General’s Office would investigate an application.
The school’s backers have said that they met with people and thought they had their support, then listed them in the application as having “shown their support for the school and provided a letter of support.”
Tarlan Ahmadov, a board member of the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, issued a statement late Tuesday saying, “Harsh accusations of ‘lies’ are unacceptable and unfounded.”
The statement took issue with several allegations that surfaced during the commission’s discussion and vote Monday, regarding the misstatements in the application and the school’s ties to a moderate Turkish imam.
“Organizationally, LAACS had absolutely no affiliation or connection with any particular ethnic, religious or cultural organization, group or person(s),” the statement said.
“Secondly, we are insulted by the accusation of ‘lies’ in the application. We had already clarified and corrected a few wording errors in the application and had forwarded a copy to the Commission chair, who appreciated our clarification.”
LETTERS OF SUPPORT LACKING
Among the listed supporters who had not actually written letters were former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, Lewiston Economic Development Director Lincoln Jeffers and professor Mara Tieken of Bates College.
The application did include letters of support from others on the list, including state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade.
Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster first raised the issue publicly in late January, telling the commission at a meeting that he called Gilbert to ask whether he supported the school.
Webster said, “Mr. Gilbert told me that yes, he did meet with the applicant, offered suggestions, but at no time indicated support for the school or provided any letters of support.”
Webster also called Jeffers and Tieken, both of whom said they had met with the school’s organizers but had not offered any personal support.
“(This) raises concern about the truthfulness of what is in this application,” Webster told the commission.
Huseyin Kara, another board member of the charter school, told the commission at that meeting that the group had met with those people, who had verbally expressed their support, so it had listed them as supporters in the application.
Kara declined to comment Tuesday.
Jeffers said Tuesday that he discussed the school’s space requirements with its organizers and suggested locations, but did not offer any support.
Tieken told Webster that she expressly told the group she didn’t want to be listed as a supporter.
“I was clear with the folks I met with that, while I could understand their motivations … I wouldn’t write a letter of support,” Tieken wrote to him in an email. “I said they could name me as ‘someone they had consulted with,’ but I didn’t say I was a ‘supporter’ precisely because of my mixed feelings.”
INVESTIGATE OR NOT?
Jana Lapoint, the chairwoman of the Charter School Commission, said Tuesday that she doesn’t think the application should be investigated. She said Ahmadov had called her to ask if he should get a lawyer.
“I told him that was his decision to make,” she said.
Lapoint said she did not have a sense of whether the commission will ask for an investigation. “I just don’t think it rises to the level of going to the attorney general of our state,” she said.
Commissioner Sampson said Tuesday that she feels the commission will have to discuss the issue before deciding what to do next.
“It may well warrant further discussion and investigation,” she said in an email, noting that she was not speaking for the commission. “I don’t take it lightly that there are examples of false representation of individuals in addition to other misleading information.”
The commission’s next meeting is scheduled April 1.
Webster said Tuesday that now that the application has been denied, he’s not sure it’s a good use of state resources to investigate it.
“The lesson learned is that we need to follow up on all these kinds of applications and ascertain the veracity of what is in there,” he said. “I am very pleased with the commission’s decision and, in fact, their decision has increased my faith in the work they do. I was prepared for something different.”
The commission noted in its final report that the proposed school’s academic program didn’t align with Maine law and requirements, and its budget didn’t have funding for enough special-education teachers.
The report also said that “Although all contacts mentioned in the application with various members of the community were held, the Board needs to be diligent about including only actual letters of support, and about recognizing that contacts do not necessarily mean support.”
For example, the group’s application listed Bates professor Elizabeth Eames as a member of the school’s advisory board. At a commission meeting, Eames said she had written a letter of support but was unaware that she was listed as a member of the advisory board.
Previously, the school’s biggest controversy was whether its backers had ties to the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, a moderate cleric in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that a recent corruption and bribery scandal was orchestrated by an Islamic movement led by Gulen.
The Lewiston-Auburn academy board members denied any ties, and said the only official “Gulen Schools” are private.
The same group was rejected last year when it tried to open a charter school in Bangor.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: