Thursday, May 23, 2013
AUGUSTA – A state commission voted Tuesday to approve the opening of two charter schools, a science-oriented high school in Portland in 2013 and an elementary school in Cornville in the coming school year.
The votes mean that within 14 months, Maine will have at least three charter schools, which have been allowed in 40 other states but are new to Maine.
A law passed last year allows the new Maine Charter School Commission to authorize as many as 10 charter schools over the next 10 years.
Last month, the commission approved plans for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a magnet school that has operated since September on the campus of the Good Will-Hinckley Home in Fairfield. It will now be joined by the Baxter Academy School of Technology and Science and the Cornville Regional Charter School.
"We're off to a great start with these approvals," Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said in a prepared statement after Tuesday's votes. He said charter schools foster innovation and flexibility.
But many public school systems, including Portland's, see charter schools as a threat because they draw funding and students away from traditional public schools.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the Baxter Academy proposal should have been rejected because it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The commission approved Baxter Academy only after its proponents announced that they would open the school in 2013 rather than 2012, as initially proposed.
The delay reflects concerns that opponents raised about the school's ability to be ready by this September, Brennan said.
He said in an interview that the commission faces pressure from Gov. Paul LePage, Bowen and lawmakers to approve charter schools.
"It would have been embarrassing to the governor, the commissioner and the Legislature if no charter schools were approved this time around," he said. "I think the commission bent over backward to be accommodating, particularly with the Baxter school."
On June 11, frustrated with what he considered to be the commission's slow pace for approving charter schools, LePage sent a letter urging it to act as quickly as possible. He said members who were not up to the task should resign.
Commissioner Lynda Doyle said LePage's letter did not pressure the commission. "If anything, it was annoying," she said.
Doyle said the commission has a lot of integrity. "Nobody on that commission is in anybody's pocket," she said.
The one-year delay for Baxter Academy allayed the commission's worries that the proponents would fail to transform a former call center at 54 York St. into a school by September.
The delay gives the proponents more time to raise money, easing commissioners' concerns that the school's budget was so tight that it would risk running out of cash.
James Banks Sr., the commission's chair, said he was impressed with the group's revised application, which included a fundraising plan put together by Andrea Berry, who two months ago became president of the school's board of directors.
Berry was involved with a charter school in Boston and oversees fundraising for Idealware, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps other nonprofits buy software.
The school's curriculum will focus on math, science and engineering.
Shaun Meredith, who founded the software development firm InfoBridge, told the commission that technology companies in Maine will support the school because they need workers with technology skills.
Fifty-one students have applied to enroll in the school, which aims to have 160 students, starting with the ninth and 10th grades in the first year. Twenty percent of the applicants live in Portland.
In a separate vote, the commission approved the plan for a charter school in Cornville starting this fall. Parents who opposed the closure of Cornville's elementary school two years ago developed the proposal.
The commission rejected the plan two weeks ago on a 3-3 vote, but the proponents convinced the commission to reconsider after submitting a revised budget that showed a $25,000 surplus after the first year. The school will have at least 45 students.
Proponents say they expect the school will open before Oct. 1.
Some commissioners had expressed concerns that the school's program would not be different enough from traditional public school to justify a charter.
But proponents argued that the school will be different, offering a longer school day, a personal learning plan for every student, a gardening program, and the ability to schedule social studies, science and health programs for the same period for all grades, kindergarten through sixth.
"This is not only an opportunity to bring back our community school, but build a dream school for teachers, students and parents," said Justin Belanger, a painting contractor who will receive a $1,000 annual salary as the school's director for the first year.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: