July 30, 2013

Baxter school criticized for luncheon with political group

But charter school officials deny seeking funds from the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Officials of Portland's first charter school say criticism the school has drawn for hosting a luncheon with a conservative advocacy group is politically motivated, but emails and documents show that school officials discussed fundraising opportunities with the Maine Heritage Policy Center even before the school was invited to be involved with the event.

click image to enlarge

This photo from Baxter Academy's Facebook page shows the building on York Street in Portland where the school plans to open in the fall. Officials of Portland's first charter school say criticism the school has drawn for hosting a luncheon with a conservative advocacy group is politically motivated, but emails and documents show that school officials discussed fundraising opportunities with the Maine Heritage Policy Center even before the school was invited to be involved with the event.

"Well! Just today in the fundraising committee we were talking about strengthening our relationship to MHPC, and here they are with a wonderful opportunity for us," read an email May 31 from Baxter Academy board Chairwoman Kelli Pryor to other board members and school officials.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, which is due to open in the fall, is one of five charter schools approved in Maine. Charter schools receive public funding but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community leaders, and are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to public school districts.

They have become a partisan issue in Maine, strongly backed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by legislators and others who want to protect public school funding.

Pryor's email, obtained by the Portland Press Herald under Maine's open records law, was sent on the day the Maine Heritage Policy Center asked to hold its annual Friedman Legacy Day Celebration, in honor of the late Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, at Baxter Academy. Friedman was an advocate of school choice.

Three weeks later, school officials discussed the luncheon at a fundraising committee meeting chaired by board Vice Chairwoman Allison Crean Davis.

"The purpose of this event will be to cultivate a relationship with MHPC as an entity, as well as with its members as individuals," Crean Davis wrote in an email on June 21. "As a group and as individuals, the members of MHPC have the capacity to support Baxter Academy both financially and politically."

The same language is in the minutes of a meeting of the Friends of Baxter Academy.

The luncheon, scheduled Wednesday at the school, will include presentations by Crean Davis; Amanda Clark, the Maine Heritage Policy Center's education analyst; and Carol Weston, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. About 75 people are expected. The Maine Heritage Policy Center will provide a catered lunch.

SCHOOL CHOICE

On Monday, Pryor and Crean Davis emphatically denied that Baxter is seeking financial support from the Maine Heritage Policy Center and said the emails and documents don't reflect the intent of the school.

Crean Davis said what she meant was not that Baxter Academy would accept money from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, but that it wanted to solicit the group's members to financially support the school individually.

"We're not a political organization," Crean Davis said. "Where we overlap with (the Maine Heritage Policy Center) clearly is school choice. We're an example of school choice."

Officials with the Maine Heritage Policy Center said they do not make grants or political donations to any group, and are not offering Baxter financial support.

But Democratic leaders say the luncheon is too political for a public school.

"I'm surprised that this is how they're starting as an organized school. It's so political," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the Senate chair of the Legislature's Education Committee. "It really aligns the identity of the charter school with the extreme agenda of the Maine Heritage Policy Center."

In a prepared statement Monday, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said, "In its first public appearance, Baxter Academy has aligned itself with one of the most political fringe groups in the state. Doing so is not in the best interest of the students they are serving."

(Continued on page 2)

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