July 30, 2013

Baxter school criticized for luncheon with political group

But charter school officials deny seeking funds from the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.

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

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

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. Officials of Portland's first charter school say criticism the school has drawn for hosting a luncheon with a conservative advocacy group is politically motivated, but emails and documents show that school officials discussed fundraising opportunities with the Maine Heritage Policy Center even before the school was invited to be involved with the event.

FUNDRAISING GOALS

In an email sent Sunday to families of incoming Baxter Academy students, Pryor said the criticism is politically motivated and the school shouldn't be "drawn into bitter old fights that would be better resigned to the past."

"Once again, politicians are using Baxter Academy in struggles that have nothing to do with why we've all worked so hard to open this school," she wrote. "This Wednesday, we are welcoming members of the Maine Heritage Policy Center to see what Baxter is all about. We appreciate that the organization has worked for school choice, and we're glad to show them what school choice looks like at Baxter Academy."

The school is scheduled to open this fall with 130 students. It is renovating its leased space at 54 York St. and working to meet immediate fundraising goals.

Most of the school's private financial support so far has come from Portland lawyer Dan Amory and his family foundation, the Jebediah Fund, which donates to an array of educational and cultural organizations.

Amory has pledged $250,000 to Baxter Academy, with $100,000 requiring matching funds from the school by Aug. 31. School officials said Monday that they have not yet met that goal.

According to a fundraising letter, students have raised more than $8,000, and an online campaign aimed at raising $10,000 by Wednesday had raised just over $3,030 by Monday.

In mid-June, Amory gave the school a $200,000 loan, in addition to the donations. His son is a teacher at Baxter Academy and helped to create the school's curriculum.

'A POLITICAL FOOTBALL'

Private money going to public schools can be problematic, whether they're traditional schools or charter schools, said a national education scholar.

"Any time you get into philanthropy for public institutions, you quickly get into gray areas," said Rick Hess, director of educational policies for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In Illinois, for example, charter schools are named for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who along with her husband underwrote charter schools there.

In a small state like Maine, where charter schools are just starting, the effect could be even more pronounced, he said.

Pryor's email to parents said Baxter Academy had to focus on fundraising.

"No start-up funds are allocated to Maine charter schools, and to succeed, a school like ours must raise the funds to get rolling," Pryor wrote.

A similar letter from Executive Director Carl Stasio was posted on the school's Facebook page.

Crean Davis said she wasn't aware of any Baxter Academy parents or community members being critical of the school hosting the event but she wasn't surprised that the event caused a commotion.

"Nothing surprises me in terms of what happens when you're trying to do something good for kids in education," she said. "Others are using us as a political football, there's no doubt."

Spokesman Jonathan Haines said the Maine Heritage Policy Center would not comment on the controversy.

"What we've decided to do is let it be," Haines said. "We don't want political fallout and political ramifications to overshadow this event."

The chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, which approves and oversees charter schools, did not return calls for comment.

William Shuttleworth, who recently stepped down from the commission, said he supports charter schools bringing in "diverse groups with a wide range of opinions," but not if there is a political agenda.

He said the commission never had an extensive discussion about the relationship between political entities and charter schools when it created rules for charter schools.

 

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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