April 4, 2013

Panel delays decision on review of Portland charter school

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee delayed its decision Tuesday on a review of an embattled charter school in Portland until after state regulators consider the school's license application next week.

click image to enlarge

A screen shot of Baxter Academy's new website, www.baxter-academy.org.

But the committee directed its watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to look at potential focuses for a review.

Beth Ashcroft, the office's director, said any investigation would likely be broad, focusing not just on the Baxter Academy for Science and Technology but also on standards and processes by which charter schools are approved in Maine.

The oversight committee met in response to a letter March 27 from the leaders of the Education Committee asking for a review of the process in which Baxter Academy won conditional approval from the Maine Charter School Commission to open this fall.

The commission is to approve or deny Baxter Academy's application Monday, so the oversight committee will take up the request again on April 12.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, co-chairs of the Education Committee, asked the oversight committee to have OPEGA review the process and standards by which the Charter School Commission reviewed and granted Baxter's approval, the commission's role in providing advice to Baxter Academy during the process and Baxter Academy's financial viability.

After Tuesday's meeting, Ashcroft said a broader look at the first two points -- for Baxter and future charter school applicants -- could be fruitful.

"Are those clear enough? she asked. "Are there areas when we get into potential problems or issues?"

But she said probing Baxter's financial viability would duplicate the commission's work.

"That's not our role, to say something is not financially viable, especially at this juncture," she said.

Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the commission, said she applauded the committee's decision, especially since it doesn't appear to focus solely on Baxter Academy.

"If they could find anything that would make our processes smoother, I'm all for it," she said.

Alison Crean Davis, vice chairwoman of Baxter Academy's board of directors, downplayed the committee's decision to delay any review, saying, "It wasn't really anything I was concerning myself with."

Baxter got conditional approval from the commission in July. Much has changed since then.

Accused of financial mismanagement, John Jaques, the school's founder, was fired from his post as executive director last month.

For a time, Jaques refused to relinquish control of the school's website and Facebook page. The board of directors sued him, prompting Jaques to countersue.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, a member of the Education and Government Oversight committees, said the events raise questions about whether the school can proceed.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said OPEGA generally investigates when evidence suggests that government processes aren't working, or that wrongdoing may have occurred.

For example, the office's probe of the Maine Turnpike Authority led to the conviction of the agency's longtime executive director, Paul Violette, on theft charges last year.

"Where is that probable cause here?" Katz said regarding Baxter Academy. "I don't see it."

Baxter Academy's application process has been politically charged since Jaques' resignation. In a statement after Tuesday's meeting, Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the oversight committee's Senate chair, said the committee must "take the politics out of it."

After Jaques' firing, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a former Democratic legislator and a charter school critic, asked Attorney General Janet Mills to review the school's finances and suspend negotiations with the commission. She declined.

Gov. Paul LePage criticized Brennan, writing in a letter to the mayor that his request to Mills was "the latest salvo in your campaign against" Baxter Academy and charter schools.

After the Education Committee's co-chairs requested an investigation, Lapoint, the Charter School Commission chairwoman, said they were "fishing for something because they don't want charter schools."

 

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

 

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