May 8, 2013

After turmoil, Portland charter school approved

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

AUGUSTA – The Maine Charter School Commission approved a scaled-down plan for Portland's first charter school Tuesday, clearing the way for the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science to open in the fall.

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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.

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"I am tremendously grateful that the commission recognized the support that Baxter has from its students and families," said Kelli Pryor, chairwoman of Baxter's board of directors.

Pryor and others broke into applause when the commission voted unanimously to approve the school's charter. The school scaled down its expected enrollment from 160 students to 130 in its final plan.

That will result in less revenue, since charter schools are mostly funded by state per-pupil money that follows a student to the charter school from his or her sending school district.

Baxter officials said they covered the approximately $300,000 drop in per-pupil revenue in part by cutting some teacher positions, reducing the salary of the part-time executive director, and increasing expected revenue from fundraising and donations.

Pryor and others expressed relief at finally getting the charter signed, which happened right after the commission took its vote.

"I'm almost speechless," Pryor said. Several people took photos of Pryor and Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint as they signed the contract and posed.

Baxter Academy 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. It also prompted the commission to halt contract talks with the school and ask the board to explain the changes and lay out its plans for opening.

On Tuesday, all those questions were considered settled.

"Now things can start to accelerate," Pryor said, referring to some funding and hiring decisions that had been deferred until the school got its charter signed.

Renovations at the school's York Street facility began last week, and Pryor said the hiring of teachers would be a priority. The school recently hired a new executive director, former Thornton Academy headmaster Carl Stasio.

School officials are also still working on boosting enrollment.

As of Tuesday, 106 students had committed to attend the school, coming from 27 school districts. Under the terms of the contract, Baxter can have no fewer than 117 students, and no more than 143 -- which allows for 10 percent more or less than the target enrollment of 130 students.

Portland public schools had expected to be hit hardest by an anticipated loss of students from the district to Baxter Academy. Under earlier enrollment projections, 18 students from Portland schools planned to attend Baxter. However, only seven students from Portland have committed to attending the charter school.

Regional School Unit 5, covering Freeport, Pownal and Durham, now stands to lose only eight students instead of the 17 projected previously.

"We're very excited and happy for Baxter," Lapoint said. "We know they've got a good, solid program that will be good for the area."

Charter schools are approved and overseen by the Maine Charter School Commission under a state law enacted in 2011. The law caps the number at 10 schools in 10 years. Two have already opened.

Baxter and two others, the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray and Harpswell Coastal Academy, are expected to open in the fall.

Charter schools receive public funding but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders and are largely exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to public school districts.

They have become a partisan issue in Maine, strongly backed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage but opposed by legislators and others who want to protect public school funding.

The cost of educating charter school students is currently paid by the public school districts in which the students live. Several bills have been introduced in the Legislature this session to change that funding formula, including one proposal to have the cost of charter schools spread out among all schools statewide.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: ngallagher@mainetoday.com

 

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