March 6, 2012

Deadline limits charter schools opening in fall

The commission setting criteria for authorizing the schools may not decide until July 1.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The Maine Charter School Commission has given itself a July 1 deadline to decide whether to approve proposals for charter schools.

click image to enlarge

John Jaques heads the nonprofit group that hopes to open the Baxter School of Science and Mathematics at 54 York St. in Portland, shown behind him. He believes the school can open this fall, even if it doesn’t receive approval until July 1.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

That deadline leaves any group that plans to a start a school this September with only 60 days to recruit students, hire teachers and prepare classrooms.

As a result, only one or two schools will be able to open in Maine in 2012, said Commissioner Donald Mordecai, speaking before about 50 people at Deering High School on Monday.

"The commission has got to stay focused on doing this right, doing this as well as we possibly can, to make sure we can succeed," he told the crowd. "That is probably a more important goal than a time frame for schools to open."

Commissioner Dick Barnes said the commission is moving cautiously because it wants to make sure that any approved charter school succeeds. That might mean rejecting applicants and waiting until 2013, he said.

"If we don't have a quality applicant by July 1, we will take our lumps," he said. "Better to wait."

The Charter School Commission was formed in January and is now working to create criteria it will use to authorize charter schools. To gather public input about regional gaps in education that charter schools could fill, the commission held Monday's forum. It will meet Thursday in Bangor and March 15 in Augusta.

The state's charter school law, enacted last year, allows approval of as many as 10 public charter schools over the next decade. Also, public school districts could convert schools into charter schools.

Charter schools are funded primarily by public money but may pursue private donations as well. They are free from many of the regulations that apply to public schools.

Advocates say charter schools serve as laboratories for reform. Critics say charter schools have a mixed track record and weaken public schools by drawing away resources.

Portland would be home to the largest proposed charter school, Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, which would operate in a former call center at 54 York St.

John Jaques, who heads the nonprofit group that would run the school, said it's helpful that the commission has finally provided a deadline. He said 60 days will leave his group with just enough time to recruit 160 students.

He hopes to open the school this fall with ninth and tenth grade, then expand it to 11th and 12th grade.

He said his group would have to spend about $200,000 to convert the building into a school. He said all the work, except for repairs to the elevator, could be completed in 60 days.

Baxter Academy is inviting interested parents and students to a meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday on the 7th floor of the Glickman Family Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Jaques said the school expects to draw students from greater Portland and provide transportation to and from school from various points in the region, depending on enrollment.

Tuition would be free, and the school would not be allowed to select students based on academic ability. It would be required to accept any special-education students. Its funding would come from the state and school districts where the students live.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said in an interview Monday that he sees the proposed school as a threat to the economic well-being of Portland's school system because it would take students and money from the system.

He said the city is trying to increase enrollment, and noted that residents have three public high schools: Portland High School, Deering High School and Casco Bay High School, which focuses on expeditionary learning.

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