March 5, 2012

Maine charter schools move closer to reality

Groups planning such schools, including one in Portland, prepare to fill out applications as soon as the state has them.

By SUSAN MCMILLAN Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA - Groups hoping to start Maine's first public charter schools are still waiting for a request for proposals, but they say they'll be ready for classes this fall.

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THE PUBLIC is invited to comment about regional gaps in education that charter schools could fill. The State Charter School Commission will hold a public session for comments from 6:30 to 8 p.m. today at the Deering High School cafeteria in Portland.

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For more information on the charter school commission go to www.maine.gov/education/ charterschools/commission.html

The State Charter School Commission is developing the application and evaluation packet it will use to authorize charter schools. Meetings are scheduled today in Portland, Thursday in Bangor and March 15 in Augusta to gather public input about regional gaps in education that charter schools could fill.

Commission chairman James Banks Sr., also the chairman of the Maine State Board of Education, said that because charter schools are new in Maine, no one knows how many schools will open initially or how much demand there will be.

"I'm interested to see, and the other commissioners are interested to hear, what the various communities believe they'd like to see in a charter school," Banks said.

The seven-member commission, which began its work in January, can authorize up to 10 schools in the first decade. School districts also can authorize charter schools.

Banks said the Maine Department of Education is helping to develop four documents: an application form, evaluation system for applications, a contract between the commission and a school operator, and academic and operational performance standards for charter schools.

Banks said he did not know when those documents would be ready. Hiring an outside consultant may have helped the commission complete its work more quickly, but they did not have the budget for it.

"We're moving as expeditiously as we can, given that the commission at the present time has no available funds," Banks said.

Rules endorsed by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee last month include an April 1 deadline for holding an enrollment lottery, in the case of a charter school receiving more applications than it has spaces.

It is unlikely, however, that any school's charter will be approved by then.

That should not be a problem, according to John Jacques, who is leading a group hoping to open a charter high school in Portland. Charter school operators will be able to request a waiver of the April 1 deadline from their authorizers, Jacques said.

The Maine Association for Charter Schools requested that there be no deadline, but school district representatives said it would be very difficult to develop budgets if they did not know how many of their students would enroll in charter schools.

Under Maine law, state and local operating money follows students from their home school district to a charter school.

Jacques said his group has put months of work into planning the proposed Baxter Academy for Technology & Science. They have a lease agreement for 20,000 square feet in downtown Portland and hope to enroll 80 to 160 students.

Because the charter school law enacted last year specifies much of the information charter school operators must include in their applications, Jacques said his group should be able to apply almost as soon as the State Charter School Commission releases its application packet.

"It really shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks," Jacques said.

At the education committee's work session on the charter school rules, some legislators expressed concern about multiple charter schools opening in an area and siphoning away large numbers of students from traditional public schools.

A charter school can enroll up to 30 percent of a traditional school's students in the first three years, with no cap after that except for the charter school's capacity.

Glenn Cummings, president and executive director of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley, told legislators he does not expect many charter schools to open this fall. The school, which opened in September, is preparing to apply as an existing school that's converting into a charter school.

"For those of you who are panicked that there's suddenly going to be hundreds of them, I would take a breath," Cummings said. "If we were not in this unique position, I don't see how we would do it."

Good Will-Hinckley already has a campus -- the original school was a residential school that closed in 2009 after more than 100 years in operation -- and a modest endowment. Without having those in place, Cummings said, it would be difficult to overcome the immense financial hurdles of starting a school.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

 

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Charter schools

How much demand for charter schools do you believe there is in Maine?

A lot

Some

Not much

View Results