March 26, 2013

Governor proposes legal defense fund for charter school board

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

"A million dollars is a lot of damn money," Mills said. "It's not just where the money goes to, it's where they take it out of."

Budget documents show that the legal contingency funding would come directly from General Purpose Aid to school districts. 

Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, questioned Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen about the proposal at a budget session last week. "Why are the suits expected and how was the dollar amount chosen?" Carey asked. 

Bowen offered no specifics. On Monday, a spokesman for the department referred questions to LePage's communications staff. 

In January, LePage said during a news conference that school districts had sent lawyers to Charter School Commission hearings. He also was highly critical of the commission for not quickly approving several applicants, and said some members were either intimidated or part of the public education "status quo."

"And frankly, I think (the commissioners), if they're afraid to do the job, if they can't put the students first, then they ought to resign," he said. "And quite frankly, I think we ought to go back to the Legislature and change that (commission) structure because that structure's failing us. It's run by the status quo."

Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the commission, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Attorney General's Office now provides legal guidance to the Charter School Commission. A member of the attorney general's staff attends most public proceedings and is consulted by the commission.

Noting that Democrats voted for the charter school law that the Legislature passed in 2011, Mills said, "I don't think it's that partisan an issue."

And even if she disagrees with the LePage administration on a public policy matter, she said, her office is the state's legal department. "(Party differences don't) diminish our ability to represent state government," she said.

Steele, with the governor’s office, said the charter school debate could create a situation where it could be difficult to separate policy from politics. He noted Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s recent request for the attorney general to review the application for Baxter Academy for Technology and Science to ensure that the commission properly vetted the application.

Mills has declined to comment on Brennan’s request. Lapoint called Brennan’s request “grandstanding.”

Nonetheless, the proposal to divert state aid to school districts for the legal defense of charter schools could add to an escalating political debate.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at

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