March 25, 2013

Charter panel questions Baxter board in aftermath of firing

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — About a dozen parents and children urged the state Charter School Commission to allow Portland's first charter school to open this fall, despite the firing of founder John Jaques two weeks ago amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

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(FILE) John Jaques, founder of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, has been removed as executive director of the fledgling charter school by the school's board of directors. Photographed on Thursday, March 7, 2013.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Members of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science board of directors appeared before the commission Monday to answer questions about the school's status in the wake of the upheaval.

They were supported by several prospective parents who said they support the change in management.

"In spite of the difficulty and the naysayers, we are more committed than ever to the school," said Rachel Rodriguez of Cumberland, whose daughter hopes to attend.

After he was fired, Jaques, then the school's executive director, refused to relinquish control of the school's website and other password-protected online assets. The school sued Jaques to get him to turn over the material.

He complied, but then countersued, claiming defamation, and is seeking punitive damages. He also claims intellectual property rights to the materials used to create Baxter Academy.

On Friday, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan asked the Maine Attorney General's Office to investigate the financial mismanagement allegations and determine whether the Charter School Commission properly reviewed the school's finances. He also wants the state to freeze all contract negotiations with the school.

On Monday, Baxter's board told commission members they had secured new funding, hired a head of school, signed a lease on their space and were reorganizing the school's administration, including bringing on new board members.

"We feel Baxter is stronger than it ever has been," Chairwoman Kelli Pryor said. The school plans to open with ninth and 10th graders and add grades 11 and 12 over the next two years.

Jaques was in the audience and gave a brief statement afterward.

"This is clearly a new group moving forward with a new plan," he said. He submitted written testimony to the commission, but the text was not immediately available.

Baxter Academy currently has tentative approval from the commission to open in the fall but needs further approvals.

Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said no decision would be made at Monday's meeting. The commission plans to announce whether it will grant its next approval for Baxter at its regularly scheduled meeting April 8 in Augusta. Five of the seven commissioners must vote in the affirmative for Baxter to move forward.

The commission did not ask the board to explain why Jaques was fired. Lapoint said at the beginning of the meeting that no one was allowed to discuss the pending lawsuits.

The commissioners sounded skeptical at times, mostly about financial details, but enthusiastic about the proposed curriculum.

The school would emphasize engineering and science. Study of a Shakespearean play might lead to an engineering analysis of catapaults, for example. Then students might build one.

Fridays would be set aside for students to work on projects, work in the community, do library research or use facilities at the University of Southern Maine.

Lapoint said Monday's presentation was the first to give detailed descriptions of classes and how students would learn and reach academic benchmarks set by the state.

"Before, they just sort of brushed through (the academic portion)," Lapoint said after the meeting. "Today they showed a lot more knowledge and I was excited as a teacher."

Among the details Baxter officials gave were:

  • Financial information. A donor has pledged $250,000, which will be matched with $100,000 in school funds. The school has already raised and spent about $70,000 of the matching amount, board member Peter Montano said, and has plans to raise another $70,000 from an annual event.

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