November 1, 2012

Five groups file charter school requests with state commission

Three other interested organizations miss Wednesday filing deadline

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- If the Maine Charter School Commission approves all of the new charter schools proposed for next year, it will leave a slot for only one more until a cap is lifted in 2022.

Five organizations applied Wednesday to found charter schools. In the first round of the process this summer, the charter commission approved two schools to open this year and gave conditional approval to two others.

The commission can authorize up to 10 schools during a decade-long transition period included as a compromise in the charter school law passed last year.

Local school boards also can convert district schools to charters or start new charter schools, neither of which would count toward the cap, but no one has pursued that option yet.

The new proposed schools are:

* Harpswell Coastal Academy, a grade six to 12 school in Harpswell incorporating marine and natural resources, agriculture and sustainable entrepreneurship into the curriculum.

* Heartwood Charter School, a grade six to eight middle school in Kennebunk focusing on visual and performing arts.

* Maine Connections Academy, a statewide kindergarten through 12th grade virtual school operated by Maryland-based Connections Education.

* Maine Virtual Academy, a statewide kindergarten through 12th grade virtual school operated by Virginia-based K12 Inc.

* Queen City Academy Charter School, a grade six to 12 school in Bangor focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

Three groups that submitted letters in September indicating their intent to apply did not do so by the deadline Wednesday.

Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said that if the Legislature revisits the cap on the number of schools, it probably would receive support from Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

"The governor has certainly been clear that he supports options for students, so I would not be surprised if there were support for increasing or lifting that cap of 10," Connerty-Marin said.

The two virtual schools submitted applications in the first round, but the commission decided not to approve any virtual schools this year because they were concerned about how to ensure they would provide a quality education.

The commissioners have since attended seminars arranged through the National Governors Association and New Hampshire's Virtual Learning Academy, and commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said they are reading everything they can find about the successes and failures of virtual charter schools in other states.

Many Connections Education and K12 schools in other states have produced poor results, and charter commissioners were worried that the companies would not be accountable to the nonprofit organizations that would hold the school charters.

"We need to be very, very confident that their governance structure will keep them at arms length from the companies that they are hiring to actually administer their programs," Lapoint said. "The other thing to us is how do we evaluate their program to ensure that their students are receiving what they should be receiving?"

Lapoint said she thinks the commission put together a strong request for proposals in the first round of approvals, but was too rushed by the compressed timeline.

Cornville Regional Charter School and Maine Academy of Natural Sciences were not able to produce key documents like occupancy certificates and proof of insurance until a week or two before classes started on Oct. 1, Lapoint said.

The commission will schedule interviews and public hearings for the current round of applications as soon as possible, with the goal of beginning contract negotiations with approved schools in February.

At the same time, the commission is pivoting into a new role: monitoring and evaluating schools. Lapoint said commissioners are still determining how that will work.

In addition to time constraints, the commission has been hampered by a lack of funding. The supplemental budget appropriated $100,000 for conferences, an administrative assistant and a half-time executive director, Bob Kautz, who began paid work for the commission last week.

The commission also will start receiving funding from the schools it has approved. Charter school authorizers may charge up to 3 percent of the per-pupil funding each charter school receives.

The commissioners are working on a volunteer basis, and Lapoint said the 41 hours she logged in a recent week is typical of the time she and other commissioners are putting in.

"You really cannot expect volunteers to give that kind of time," she said. "We need a budget that we can work off of, that will sustain us as we move ahead."

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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