March 23, 2013

Portland mayor calls for AG probe of charter school

The mayor also wants the attorney general to look into financial mismanagement and how the commission reviewed its application.

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

PORTLAND — Portland Mayor Michael Brennan is asking the state attorney general to freeze all state contract negotiations with Baxter Academy for Technology and Science until the state investigates allegations of financial mismanagement at the school and how the commission reviewed the school's application.

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Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has long opposed Baxter Academy, which is expected to cost the Portland school district about $500,000.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

Related Documents

PDF: Mayor Brennan's letter to AG Janet MIlls

"I think it's important for potential families and students (interested in attending Baxter) to know these issues have been raised, so that it's not six months after September and they realize (the school) doesn't have the finances to continue operating," Brennan said Friday.

Charter School Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said Brennan's call for an investigation amounted to "grandstanding" and said the mayor should have contacted the commission directly if he had questions about how the panel reviews and approves charter schools.

"We have a procedure, and we're following that procedure," Lapoint said Friday. "We're not going to be blindsided or care that someone has blindsided us. ... If they knew the facts, they wouldn't go off the deep end."

The request is the latest challenge for the school, which is scheduled to open in the fall. At least 160 students have expressed interest in the school, but that was before the upheaval that ensued when the founder and executive director of Baxter Academy was fired for what the board called "a pattern of mismanagement."

John Jaques said he was fired because the father of a member of the school's advisory board promised to donate as much as $250,000 if Jaques was no longer in charge.

Jaques denied any financial mismanagement and sharply criticized the board of director members for saying he misled them about the availability of a $500,000 line of credit that was critical to the school's financial stability.

The board sued Jaques to make him turn over school property that he still controlled, including the school's online assets. He complied, but countersued for defamation and is seeking damages.

The events "have raised serious questions about its viability as well as concerns over the application process and subsequent approval granted by the Maine Charter School Commission," Brennan wrote in a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills.

Specifically, Brennan asked Mills to review:

whether school finances were mismanaged;

whether the charter commission conducted "an appropriate review" of the school's financial situation;

whether commissioners advised or assisted the school in an appropriate manner.

If the attorney general doesn't investigate, Brennan said, the Legislature or education commission should take it up because so much public money is at stake.

"It seems to me the AG or the Legislature should be reviewing the situation and also be asking the question of the charter commission, 'Why did you let this go forward?' There needs to be a more rigorous review process," Brennan said. He also wants a clear process for filing a formal appeal of the commission's decision, if they grant a charter to Baxter.

Baxter Academy has received preliminary approval from the Maine Charter School Commission to open this fall, under a state law passed in 2011. The law caps the number at 10 schools in 10 years. Two have opened already.

The commission is scheduled to discuss the school's status at a meeting Monday, and commission members have asked the board to review the recent upheaval. Lapoint noted that the school still needs further approval from the commission before it can open.

(Continued on page 2)

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