March 9, 2013

Our View: Portland charter school flap exposes structural flaw

Schools that have the potential to spend a lot of public money have very little public oversight.

When charter schools are attacked for taking money away from public schools, we always hear the same response:

click image to enlarge

John Jaques, founder of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, has been removed as executive director of the fledgling charter school by the school's board of directors.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

Charter schools are public schools.

They are schools that receive public money on a per-student basis, just like other public schools, but are free from some of the bureaucratic requirements found in most school systems.

The trade-off for the public is that the community gets a school option that can offer a more innovative program, and it gives up a little oversight.

An ugly spat involving the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, a newly approved charter school that has not yet opened its doors to students, shows how this bargain can be a bad deal.

The new school's board announced Thursday that it had fired Executive Director John Jaques, the school's founder, for "a pattern of mismanagement." Jaques said he'd been fired at the demand of a donor who wanted to control how the school would be run.

Regardless of who is telling the truth, or whether the truth lies somewhere in the middle, this could turn out to be a bad deal for the public, which will have to pay student tuition for anyone who attends Baxter in the fall.

If the board is right, public money will be going into a program that was created by someone who was a bad manager. If Jaques is right, one wealthy person has bought control of how public money will be spent.

It seems from what both sides say that the $500,000 line of credit that was a key factor in Baxter's approval by the state's Charter School Commission was not as solid as the applicants had claimed, and this raises questions about whether the board was responding to pressure from the governor to approve new charters rather than determining whether Baxter would be a good opportunity for students.

Government rules can seem stifling, but they are needed to keep public oversight of institutions that control public money.

Maine was one of only 10 states that did not have charter schools. It would be a major setback for the program if one of its first approved schools fell apart so quickly.

Even if the school rights itself for now, this episode poses serious questions about how these schools will be governed.

The law says that the taxpayers from the student's school district will have to pay their tuition. But it doesn't give those taxpayers the same kind of oversight they are used to with their local schools. The public depends on state officials, like the charter board, to withstand political pressure and act in the taxpayers' best interest.


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