April 8, 2013

Vote allows Portland charter school to proceed

Parents and prospective Baxter Academy students are thrilled, but several hurdles still remain.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The issue is part of a political debate between Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a supporter of charter schools, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Maine's charter schools are publicly funded. The cost of educating their students is paid by the school districts in which the students live. Charter schools can also raise money to support educational operations. School district officials have said that charter schools cut into their budgets because the state subsidy for each student follows the student to the new school. 

Tammy Gagne said her eyes teared up as the commission voted Monday to approve Baxter Academy. "It's finally a chance to exhale," she said. "My son has wanted this so badly he could taste it."

Laurie McCammon, who leads the school's volunteers, said the vote was "a dream come true."

"Because it was so hard, we really rallied together," said McCammon, referring to the upheaval from Jaques' firing. "But this is what matters," she said, gesturing toward the group of students talking excitedly after the vote.

She and other prospective Baxter Academy families planned to meet Monday night at the school, at 54 York St., which is being renovated to accommodate students.

"I'm just so happy for the students," said Kelli Pryor, the school board's chairwoman, who has two daughters who plan to attend the school. "They've been on such a roller-coaster ride."

Pryor and Michele LaForge, the recently hired head of school, said they will move quickly to hire teachers.

The school plans to finalize its enrollment in the next few weeks. Prospective students -- about 160 sent letters of interest -- must sign letters of commitment to be enrolled. There is also a small waiting list. The school must have commitments from at least 140 students to open.

Members of the Charter School Commission praised the school during Monday's meeting and in final comments before the vote. Several referred specifically to the turmoil of recent months.

"It is apparent that hard times may bring out the best in people," said Chairwoman Jana Lapoint. "Baxter Academy has come full circle and proven their worth to become a charter school."

Barnes sounded the most cautious note.

"There's still a lot of additional work to be done," he said. "There are still going to be people out there against it. (Baxter Academy is) not going into a former school. ... They're going into a facility with a lot of unknowns, and they're probably going to have a difficult first year."

LaForge said the school plans to "train" students how to behave off campus and how to navigate Portland, particularly since many will come from more rural communities.

Baxter Academy plans to open with ninth- and 10th-graders and add grades 11 and 12 over the next two years. Based on the letters of interest, it expects to draw students from about two dozen communities in southwestern Maine. It stands to have about 20 students from Portland, 11 from South Portland, nine each from Freeport and Westbrook, eight each from Lewiston-Auburn and Gorham, and five or fewer students from each of the other districts.

Baxter Academy is still unclear on the details of providing transportation and, without a final enrollment list, it doesn't know how many students may need special services, which could add to its costs.

"I wake up every morning and think, 'I hope they let me do this,'"said LaForge, who will teach math at Freeport High School through the end of this school year. "Because I know I can do this. And it's going to be great."

Noel Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:


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