Wednesday, March 12, 2014
PORTLAND — A week before its scheduled opening, the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science is due for its third city inspection for an occupancy permit Wednesday, after two inspections that showed fire code and electrical violations in the new charter school's building.
Fixes made to the building at 54 York St. since the last inspection include extending the height of some walls to meet fire code, changing a product that was used to plug holes and hanging a fire door, according to the general contractor.
2013 Press Herald File Photo / Gordon Chibroski
"What we had to do is done, and we're ready for them," said Dan LaBrie, the general contractor for the renovation at 54 York St.
On Monday, workers were down to installing soap and paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms, he said. "They're going around just making sure everything is perfect."
Portland's first charter school is scheduled to open to 135 ninth- and 10th-grade students on Sept. 4.
Delays and other issues have prompted one parent to decide not to enroll his son. In a letter to the Maine Charter School Commission, John Vedral said the delays in Baxter Academy's occupancy permit created too much uncertainty for his family. No other families have withdrawn because of the delays, said Kelli Pryor, chairwoman of the school's board of directors.
Vedral wrote: "I had planned to enroll my son at Baxter Academy this year, however the uncertainty and empty promises of the Baxter Academy board and leadership have dampened my confidence and I can no longer participate in this process. ... Hope is not a planning tool."
Soon after Vedral sent his letter, Baxter board member Ruth Dean wrote to the commission, supporting the school.
"I want to express my absolute confidence in the team at Baxter," Dean wrote. "All that needs to be done, will be done. Everyone that I've met, board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students, are united to make this school one of the best in the State of 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 schools.
The state commission approved Baxter's charter in May. Maine has a 10-school cap on charters. Two have opened and three more are scheduled to open this fall.
Baxter Academy is leasing the building at 54 York St., which was built in 1900, from Rufus Deering Co. LaBrie is a senior vice president of Rufus Deering.
Bob Kautz, the Charter School Commission's executive director, said the commission has been in "almost daily" contact with Baxter officials, and expects the school to open as scheduled.
"We're not overly concerned that it will be delayed," Kautz said, noting the age of the building.
After a board meeting Monday night at the school, Pryor said there has been some turnover of students in recent weeks as parents and children have made final decisions about where to attend school in the fall, but they haven't left because of concerns with the school.
"This is the shakedown period," Pryor said, and some families "who were with us from the start" have withdrawn because of distance from the school or because the students want to play sports at their local high schools.
Students who were on a waiting list have filled any open slots so there are no openings, she said.
She said students and families have been meeting with the school's eight teachers and other staff members in recent weeks. "What's striking is that they and their kids are being listened to."
But Vedral said that wasn't his experience.
"Things have been secretive and not straightforward, and not open," said Vedral, who served in the Legislature in the 1990s and was until recently a Planning Board member in Buxton. "When I asked specific questions about finances in particular, I got a glib answer."
He said officials offered to go through the school's financial books "line by line" in person.
"I don't just want you to bring me in," Vedral said he told them. "I want it to be public. I don't want to get the hard sell in person."
The school has been under scrutiny since March, when the board fired the school's founder and executive director. That led to new donor financing, legal disputes and calls for a state investigation.
Charter schools are a partisan issue in Maine, strongly backed by Gov. Paul LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by some legislators and others who want to protect funding for traditional public schools.
"I'm all for charter schools and competition," said Vedral, who served in the Legislature as a Republican and is now unenrolled. "The problem is, this hasn't turned out to be the proper way."
In his letter, Vedral cited the commission's contract with Baxter Academy, noting that it requires the school to complete all required renovations 30 days before the start of the school year and have a certificate of occupancy at least 15 days before opening. The same language is in contracts with all charter schools.
Charter commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint has said the commission is waiving the deadlines for Baxter.
Kautz, the commission's executive director, said failing building inspections is "not surprising when you are renovating like that," noting how old Baxter Academy's building is. "We're not going to close them down if it's a day or two (delayed in opening)."
Kautz questioned the "relevance" of media attention on the building inspection and the commission's decision to waive the deadlines.
"I think we know what we're doing. I think we know how it works," he said. "We're not hiding anything."
LaBrie, the general contractor, said the fixes at 54 York St. since the last inspection included extending the height of some walls to meet fire code, changing a product that was used to plug holes, and hanging a fire door that had arrived late.
Also Monday, the school's directors approved a $250,000 line of credit agreement with Bangor Savings Bank.
Most of the school's private financial support so far has come from Portland lawyer Dan Amory and his family foundation, the Jebediah Fund, which donates to an array of educational and cultural organizations.
Amory has pledged $250,000 to Baxter Academy, with $100,000 requiring matching funds from the school by Aug. 31. That deadline was recently extended to Dec. 31, Pryor said Monday.
Pryor said Amory was "thrilled" with the fundraising so far -- $28,000 -- and made the offer to extend the deadline. Amory did not respond to an email request for comment Monday.
According to a fundraising letter, students have raised more than $8,000, and an online campaign raised just over $4,000. The school also held a fundraiser at DeLorme in Yarmouth.
In mid-June, Amory gave the school a $200,000 loan, secured by a property in Tennessee owned by the school, in addition to the donations.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: