Thursday, December 5, 2013
AUGUSTA — A charter school proposed in Portland will get more scrutiny before the project moves forward.
The Maine Charter School Commission delayed action Monday on the application by Baxter Academies of Maine, one of four groups that want state charters under a year-old law that allows charter schools in Maine for the first time.
An application for a 50-student charter school in Cornville failed. The commission rejected a motion to begin negotiating the charter contract if supporters demonstrated that the school could remain financially stable if it fell short of enrollment projections.
Commission members also wanted more financial information before approving contract deliberations that could allow the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science to open this year.
Both decisions reflected ambivalence by the board charged with authorizing as many as 10 charter schools over the next 10 years. The commission began reviewing applications in May with the hope of approving some for the upcoming school year.
On Monday, members repeatedly expressed concerns about the short time they have to sign off on business plans that may well determine the viability of the charter schools.
"We want good charter schools," said commission member Richard Barnes. "We're only allowed to authorize 10 in 10 years. I'm worried that if we stumble here (the schools) will stumble."
The politics of charter schools has added pressure to the commission's deliberations. Gov. Paul LePage, an avid supporter of charter schools, wrote a letter to the commission in mid-June urging it to approve applications for two virtual schools.
The governor wrote that the commission has the time -- and a mandate -- to expand educational opportunities. "If any members of the commission are not up to meeting the state's expectations, I urge their resignation," he wrote.
The commission voted to delay reviewing the virtual schools' applications until next year, rejecting LePage's assertion that its reluctance to approve applications reflected the influence of interest groups traditionally opposed to charter schools -- public school districts and teachers unions.
A charter school is a public school that receives public funding but is created and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders, and is largely exempt from the rules and regulations of the area's school district.
Supporters say charters fit niche students and can offer a tailored curriculum that public schools can't. Opponents say that many charter schools fail because of faulty business plans, and that they can hurt public schools by siphoning students and public funding.
Commission members expressed several concerns about Baxter Academies, including whether renovations to a building it would use, at 54 York St. in Portland, would carry into the school year.
A bigger concern, members said, is whether Baxter Academies is financially stable.
The charter commission delayed its final vote on the application until later this month. John Jaques, executive director of Baxter Academies, said the school could operate in 2012-13 if the commission votes on the application by July 17.
Jaques expressed frustration with the commission for "moving the target," a reference to commission members' requests for updated budget data in case the school falls short of its 160-student projection.
Baxter Academies has already presented adjusted budget numbers for 100 students.
After the meeting, Jaques said concerns about the proposed school budget are overblown. He said schools that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics have widespread support from national political and business leaders. Such support, he said, would ensure adequate funding for the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science.
"It's very tough to attract funding for schools that have not been approved," Jaques said.
Monday's decision followed Baxter Academies' announcement last week that it had a $500,000 line of credit, secured by an anonymous benefactor from Tennessee, to assist with start-up costs.
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