April 30, 2013

Sign-ups for first Portland charter school falling short

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

PORTLAND — Portland's first charter school has letters of commitment from only 105 students, far short of the 160 the school hopes to enroll by the time it opens in the fall.

click image to enlarge

In this January 2, 2013, file photo, Kelli Keliehor, with her 7-year-old daughter Chloe, listens to her other daughter Brianna, 13, speak at a press conference for the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a new charter school in Portland.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

The Maine Charter School Commission approved Baxter Academy for Technology and Science for a charter just two weeks ago, based in part on the expectation that the school would have at least 140 students. Any fewer would be considered a "material change" to the application, requiring school officials to return to the commission for a new look at Baxter Academy's contract and budget.

But commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said Wednesday that the school still has time to lower its enrollment and budget projections without jeopardizing its plan to open in the fall.

School officials and a subcommittee of the charter school commission will meet within the next few weeks to finalize the charter, which is expected be done by the end of May. The full commission will then vote whether to approve the charter.

"Honestly, we'd like to see them come in at a lesser number, but that's strictly up to them," Lapoint said.

She said she is "really pleased" that Baxter Academy has commitments from more than 100 students. "I anticipated it would be far under that," she said.

Allison Crean Davis, vice chairwoman of Baxter Academy's board of directors, said the school still expects to have at least 140 students by fall.

"We're pretty pleased with these numbers, given all of the exposure we've had and the scrutiny the school has been under," Crean Davis said.

Baxter Academy has been under scrutiny since March, when the board fired the school's founder and executive director, John Jaques. That led to new donor financing, the threat of lawsuits and calls for a state investigation. It also prompted the commission to halt contract talks with the school and ask the board to explain the changes and lay out its plans for opening.

The commission's vote two weeks ago cleared the way for Baxter Academy officials to resume charter negotiations with the commission. Even though that vote was based on documents presuming 160 students, Lapoint said there was an earlier budget -- created early in the process under Jaques' tenure -- that planned for only 100.

Lapoint said that budget, written by the same person who is the treasurer on the current board, could be used to build a budget calling for fewer students.

"Its all about the budget matching the numbers," she said.

On Wednesday, the head of the state teachers union, Lois Kilby-Chesley, said Baxter Academy's lower enrollment figure is "an interesting turn of events after a tumultuous beginning."

"Baxter Academy, which has been under controversy for months, apparently does not have the support of the Portland community and surrounding areas as previously thought," Kilby-Chesley wrote in an email. "The funds that would go to the Baxter Academy would be better used to fund our public schools that have a proven track record of success for our students."

Advocates for public school districts, including Kilby-Chesley's union, the Maine Education Association, have opposed charter schools, which the state Legislature authorized in 2011.

Under the law, charter schools are publicly funded but are exempt from many of the rules that apply to public school districts. The cost of educating their students is paid by the school districts in which the students live.

Baxter Academy's new enrollment figures could be good news for some school districts in southern Maine, several of which expected to lose more than a dozen students to the school -- and the per-pupil state funding that goes with them.

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