June 17, 2012

Panel puts off OK of virtual charter schools

The commission says it needs more time to consider them, despite sharp prodding by Gov. LePage.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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By comparison, 30.2 percent of Maine schools hit federal targets in 2010-11 testing.

Commissioner Don Mordecai, another member of the subcommittee reviewing the virtual schools, did not vote to defer consideration of the applications because he was absent from the earlier meeting. On Friday, he said he would prefer to reject them outright.

"There's plenty of reason to reject them both," he said. "If we did that and told them why, they would have the opportunity to go back and address those issues properly."

Peter Mills, secretary of the board that applied to open Maine Virtual Academy and also executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said commissioners need to explain their concerns fully before the applicants can fix anything.

K12 sent the nonprofit organization, Maine Learning Innovations, a draft contract that Mills said is probably similar to one used in other states. Mills has identified several points of the contract that he plans to discuss with fellow board members and with K12, and he intends to hold them accountable.

"We have absolute power," said Mills. "They could say, 'Those conditions aren't acceptable to us, we're not coming,' and we'd say, 'Fine.' "

Maine Connections Academy board President Ruth Summers did not respond to a call or an email seeking comment. Summers is the wife of Secretary of State Charles Summers and the former executive director of a scholarship organization for schools owned by Education Management Corp.

Commissioner Linda Doyle was absent on Friday, but all commissioners there approved sending LePage a letter explaining their decision.

The letter notes that commission members were not ratified until late December. They have been working since January, sometimes meeting twice a week. But because of statutory requirements for approving rules for the commission, they could not issue a request for proposals until May 1.

"As you know, we are hamstrung by lack of appropriations for administrative support, and the hard work has rested on the broad and willing shoulders of the seven commission members who have graciously and dutifully given up to 40 hours a week just on this work," states a draft of the letter to LePage.

Charter schools are public schools that are relieved of some of the regulations and restrictions on traditional public schools. Some charters schools may offer innovative or alternative educational programs or specialize in areas such as the arts or environmental studies.

Nine groups said they intend to apply for charters. The commission has received five applications, and members expect one or two more before the June 29 deadline.

On Friday morning, before the special meeting, the commission held a public hearing for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, which could convert from a magnet school to a charter school.

Commissioners also raised concerns about governance of the school, also known as MeANS. They want the MeANS board to have full control of the educational program and worry it will be too intertwined with Good Will-Hinckley, a sprawling campus off U.S. Route 201 in Fairfield. The organization's residential school for at-risk students closed in 2009. The much smaller science academy opened in September.

Good Will-Hinckley provides facilities and some funding for the academy, and four members of its board will serve on the MeANS board. The Good-Will Hinckley board also will appoint all nine members of the MeANS board.

Two more public hearings are scheduled for Monday, both in room 202 of the Cross Building behind the State House. Baxter Academy of Technology and Science, a proposed high school in Portland, is scheduled for 9 a.m., and Cornville Regional Charter School, which would serve kindergarten through eighth grade, is at 1 p.m.


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