March 8, 2013

Baxter Academy's top exec ousted by board

Mismanagement of the charter school is cited, but John Jaques says it’s a power play by a large donor

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

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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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"There's an ulterior motive here," Jaques said. "His son is a teacher at the school. It's basically, 'I'm buying a charter school. I'm buying you off.' "

But Allison Crean Davis, the board's vice chairwoman, cited an incident last month that led the board to question Jaques's management.

She said that when the board decided to draw on a $500,000 line of credit to sign a lease on the school building, Jaques said the money wasn't available.

"It came to the board's attention that the finances proposed within Baxter Academy's budget were never put into place," the board wrote in its release Thursday. "Without the proper financing, the school did not meet one of the key requirements necessary to sign our charter contract and open our doors to students in the fall. This discovery was a catalyst for reckoning with what we deemed a pattern of mismanagement."

Crean Davis said later that the board "was trying to draw down from a line of credit that didn't exist."

Jaques said that isn't true: "The line of credit was in place for our opening for 2012, and it could have been activated at any point in time when we wanted to do it."

The school's financial stability is a critical point. Its financial underpinnings have been the focus of the state commission's approval process.

In early 2012, Baxter Academy came under scrutiny because its initial application assumed $540,000 in grants -- $360,000 in the first year -- from the U.S. Department of Education. But the average federal grant is $175,000 per year, and only 15 to 19 schools are awarded grants nationwide, said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

Pingree made inquires about the grant on behalf of Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a critic of charter schools.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.

In June, Jaques announced that he had the $500,000 line of credit, through SunTrust Bank. The line, he said, would be guaranteed by the CEO of an international engineering company.

Jaques said the co-signer had asked to remain anonymous because he didn't want to attract more requests for financial help.

On Thursday, Jaques confirmed that the co-signer was a relative of his, whom he declined to identify.

He said he never intended for the school to draw on the line of credit, which was to be replaced by a local line of credit as the school got closer to opening.

A line of credit with Bangor Savings Bank was approved a few weeks ago, Jaques said. "There was no financial mismanagement."

Charter schools are public schools that don't have to follow all of the regulations and restrictions on traditional public schools, so they can tailor their programs to certain students.

When a student enrolls in a charter school, the state tax dollars follow the student from the public school district to the charter school. That has made charter schools politically divisive.

In Portland, Brennan has long opposed Baxter Academy. On Thursday, he said Jaques's ouster is proof that the school is in chaos.

"I think this is an alarming development and it constitutes good reason for the commission to rethink its approval of Baxter Academy," Brennan said. "I've always questioned the experience of the leadership of the academy.

"I'm really concerned about the parents and the students who want to go there and if they will even come close to getting a quality education," Brennan said.

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