Monday, December 9, 2013
PORTLAND – The founder and executive director of Portland's first charter school was fired Thursday for what the board of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science called "a pattern of mismanagement."
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
But John Jaques said he was fired because the father of a member of the school's advisory board promised to donate as much as $250,000 if Jaques was no longer in charge.
He denied any financial mismanagement and sharply criticized the board of directors for saying he misled it about the availability of a $500,000 line of credit that was critical to the school's financial stability.
"It's obviously extremely troubling for them to be smearing me," Jaques said. "I did not mislead the charter commission. No one was being misled."
Baxter Academy has been approved by the Maine Charter School Commission to open this fall, under a state law passed in 2011. The law caps the number at 10 schools in 10 years. Two have opened.
As of the March 1 deadline for applications to Baxter Academy, about 160 students were interested, said Jana Lapoint, the commission's chairwoman. The school needs about 150 students to open.
Jaques, who has been the public face of the school, was not surprised by his firing. In recent weeks, attorneys for the board and Jaques were negotiating a deal for him to leave.
In an interview a few hours before he was fired, he questioned whether Baxter would be able to open without him.
"I don't see how it could happen, if the public knew the whole story. If the parents understood, they wouldn't choose (Baxter,)" Jaques said. "I couldn't live with myself if people weren't aware that this school is not the school they thought it was when they signed that letter of intent."
Jaques, who earned $64,000 a year as the sole paid employee of the school, said he wanted compensation for his intellectual property in creating the school.
He would not say how much he wanted the board to pay, but said he still hoped to "right this ship" and stay on as executive director.
When asked what would happen if he left, he said: "I hope the school is not a school of choice for very many people."
A few hours later, after he directed his attorney to end negotiations and after the Portland Press Herald contacted the state commission and Baxter Academy's board for comment, Jaques was fired in a three-sentence email.
Within an hour, the board emailed parents and issued a news release announcing the $250,000 donation and saying it will hire a new executive director.
Dan Amory, an attorney at Drummond Woodsum in Portland, confirmed Thursday that he told the board that he would not give Baxter Academy any more money if Jaques remained as director.
Amory and his family foundation, the Jebediah Foundation, have already donated a total of $40,000 to the school.
The new donation will comprise $50,000 from him and his wife, $100,000 from the foundation and another $100,000 to match funds raised by the school.
He said he had worked with Jaques, helping him with fundraising, and "really seen the guy in operation."
"And by the last part of (last) year, heading into late fall, I had lost confidence in him as a leader of Baxter," Amory said, declining to elaborate.
Jaques said he thinks the reason is more personal, noting that he questioned the role of Amory's son, Jon Amory, who serves on the school's advisory board and has run an after-school robotics class at the school building on York Street.
"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.
The Maine Charter School Commission gave its latest approval to Baxter Academy this week, and knew that Jaques would not be the director, Lapoint said Thursday.
She said the commissioners supported the board and expected the school to open in September as planned.
But they didn't realize that Jaques's removal was tied to a potential donation, she said Thursday. The school still needs further approval by the commission before it can open, she noted.
Lapoint said Baxter Academy's board and the commission recognized that Jaques was the "visionary" but he wasn't the person the board wanted to manage the school.
"I'm sure John's heart and soul was in the project from day one, but people who are visionaries do not necessarily make good management people," Lapoint said. "That is what we understand is the difference of opinion."
The questions about the line of credit are more troubling to the commission, particularly since it was given a letter from SunTrust saying a $500,000 line of credit was available.
"We accepted that letter as bona fide. It never dawned on us to say we need to see a copy of that specific line of credit," Lapoint said Thursday. "We thought the letter from the bank vice president was good enough."
Crean Davis, the board's vice chairwoman, said Jaques's departure will be good in the long run.
"The disruption is leading us to a much stronger position. It's going to be a much stronger financial position," she said.
Meg Kursturin, whose daughter has applied to attend Baxter Academy, said she expects the board to explain to parents what happened.
"I think I would have to question why one donor could affect someone being asked to leave," she said.
That said, she wouldn't necessarily remove her daughter from consideration. "I'd like to get more information from the board."
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: