August 16, 2013

Portland charter school denied occupancy approval

The charter school plans to fix building code violations and start year one on time.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Citing a half-dozen building code violations, city building inspectors have refused to issue a certificate of occupancy to 54 York St., the home of the new Baxter Academy charter school due to open in three weeks.

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This photo from Baxter Academy's Facebook page shows the building on York Street in Portland where the school plans to open in the fall. It has yet to meet the city's building code.

Related Documents

Read Portland's inspection report on the Baxter Academy building

Violations noted during an inspection Monday ranged from minor issues -- such as putting the building number on the outside of the recently painted structure and adding handrails -- to several fire-safety requirements, according to the inspection report.

"This to me, this just says they weren't ready. They just weren't done," said Tammy Munson, director of the city's inspections department. A follow-up inspection of the school, which has been under scrutiny for months over leadership and finances, has been scheduled for Tuesday.

Baxter Executive Director Carl Stasio said the school would still open on Sept. 4 to 135 students and about a dozen teachers and administrators.

"There were a bunch of things (on the report), mostly simple things," Stasio said. "There's no question in our minds that we'll open on time."

The inspector who filed the report wasn't available for comment Thursday, and Munson was not able to provide details about the exact conditions at the building.

The report lists categories where the building failed to meet standards, but does not give detailed information. For example, under the electrical inspection category, the report simply says "not ready" and "failed."

An earlier inspection, on July 19, found "numerous violations in fire and smoke walls." The Aug. 12 inspection cited problems with the building's fire and smoke barriers, which slow the spread of fire through a building.

Baxter Academy is leasing the building from Rufus Deering Co., which owns the adjacent lumber yard. Rufus Deering purchased the historic building, which was built in 1900, in 1998 for $750,000, according to city records.

The general contractor on the job is Dan LaBrie, a senior vice president at Rufus Deering. LaBrie did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science is one of three new charter schools scheduled to open in the fall, and one of five charter schools approved in Maine. 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 school districts.

The school has been under scrutiny since March, when the board fired the school's founder and executive director, John Jaques. That led to new donor financing, the threat of lawsuits and calls for a state investigation.

The dispute also prompted the Maine Charter School Commission to halt contract talks with the school and ask the school's board to lay out its plans for opening. The commission approved the school's charter in May.

Baxter Academy has already missed a state-imposed deadline of Aug. 3 to have its facility ready for the start of school on Sept. 4.

Under commission rules, all new charter schools must complete all required renovations 30 days before the start of the school year. All charters also are supposed to have a certificate of occupancy 15 days before opening; for Baxter, that date is Aug. 19.

Charter commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said Thursday that commissioners are not holding Baxter to those deadlines, and she expected the building to pass inspection next week.

Lapoint said commission members were happy with what they saw at Baxter during a tour Thursday.

"It's looking so good," she said. "The building is looking great."

Most recently, the building housed a Zumba studio. It has been under renovation for months to create classroom space on the first and second floors to accommodate 135 ninth- and tenth-grade students.

Because the building is a historic structure, changes to the exterior must be approved by the city's Historic Preservation Board.

Just this month, the city approved a request to make changes to the chimney, after refusing an earlier request that it be removed entirely.

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

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