April 1, 2013

Legislature's oversight panel sits in glare of charter school politics

Members say they can shun the fierce debate as they decide on whether to conduct an inquiry into the financial viability of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The Legislature's oversight committee decision Tuesday on whether to launch an inquiry into a proposed Portland charter school may hinge on lawmakers' ability to depoliticize a fierce education debate that has loomed over the legislative session and influenced the last election.


Sen. Emily Ann Cain, D-Penobscot, co-chair
Sen. Margaret M. Craven, D-Androscoggin
Sen. Christopher K. Johnson, D-Lincoln
Sen. Roger J. Katz, R-Kennebec
Sen. Edward M. Youngblood, R-Penobscot
Sen. David C. Burns, R-Washington
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, co-chair
Rep. Andrea M. Boland, D-Sanford
Rep. Matthew J. Peterson, D-Rumford
Rep. Paul T. Davis, Sr. R-Sangerville
Rep. H. David Cotta, R-China
Rep. Lance Evans Harvell, R-Farmington

At issue is the financial viability and vetting of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a proposed charter school scheduled to open this fall. The financial stability of the school has been under scrutiny since the Maine Charter School Commission began reviewing its application nearly a year ago.

However, internal turmoil at Baxter, including a legal dispute between the school's board of directors and its founders, has shoved the commission's review into an ongoing political debate between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Democratic legislative leaders say the charged politics of charter schools is the reason they've asked the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee to initiate a formal review of Baxter's charter application and its financial viability.

Such a review, if it happens, would be conducted by the Legislature's investigative agency, the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability, or OPEGA.

The agency has recently played a prominent role in high-profile audits of the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Housing Authority. Both inquiries probed allegations of financial malfeasance and theft of public dollars. In the case of the turnpike authority, the claims proved true, landing Paul Violette, the authority's former director, in prison for 3½ years on a theft conviction.

Democratic politicians were the target of both inquiries. However, the 12-member oversight committee, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, supported both audits.

A bipartisan vote will also be needed for the Baxter inquiry to proceed. In order to conduct a rapid review that doesn't delay Baxter's plan to open in the fall, two-thirds of the panel will need to vote for it.

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chair of the committee, said Friday that the turnpike authority investigation showed the oversight committee can insulate itself from partisan politics.

Cain acknowledged the party tensions surrounding charter schools, but said the review isn't about "value or impact of charter schools."

"We've been asked to look at the policies and practices that have gone into the Baxter Academy application based on things that have come to light in the press or through their (Baxter's) own conversations in (the charter commission review)," she said. "All of that raises concerns. We're at the beginning of this charter school application process, and we want people to have confidence in the outcome."


Cain said the oversight committee has proved that questions about procedure and program integrity can occur without undermining the policy or agency.

However, the politics of the charter school debate may be different.

The conflict has roots that extend to the previous Republican-controlled Legislature, which in 2011 enacted a law that made Maine the 41st state to allow charter schools.

In Maine, charter schools are publicly funded. The cost of educating students is paid for by the school districts in which the students live. Charter schools can also raise money to support educational operations, and teachers do not have to be members of the Maine Education Association -- the state's teachers union.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a charter school critic and former Democratic state senator, asked Attorney General Janet Mills last month to review the school's finances and suspend its negotiations with the charter school commission, which must approve charter school applications.

(Continued on page 2)

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