Portland Mayor Michael Brennan came out Wednesday against the Portland school superintendent’s decision to partner with a for-profit virtual education company for a new online program, saying the agreement deserves “a lot of scrutiny.”

Also Wednesday, the state’s top education official said he called Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk to warn him not to start a virtual instruction program for financial reasons. Jim Rier said he told Caulk that it might not realize the envisioned savings, and could end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

” ‘The focus shouldn’t be on the cost savings you speculate might occur,’ ” Rier said he told Caulk.

The superintendent told the Portland School Board on Tuesday that he had ordered online curriculum from Pearson, the same vendor that is supplying an online curriculum to the state’s first virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy, which opened this week.

Brennan said Wednesday that he has strong reservations about contracting with a for-profit entity to run the city’s program, calling it “problematic.”

“I think when you start to interject these types of for-profit entities and motives into public education, it has to be done very carefully and with a lot of scrutiny,” Brennan said. “I don’t support the public charter virtual school that has been approved. Having somebody like Pearson run it, I didn’t support it on a statewide basis and I certainly don’t support their involvement with the Portland Public Schools system.”

Brennan and Caulk have worked closely together on major education initiatives in the city, and jointly condemned charter schools over their impact on traditional school budgets.

Caulk said his goal in starting the virtual instruction program is to lure back seven Portland students who enrolled at the new virtual charter school, along with nearly $50,000 in state aid generated by those students.

Under the state’s new charter school program, state aid that averages about $7,000 per student is funneled through the student’s home district and then on to the charter school. The home districts keep 1 percent for administrative costs.

“The first goal is to reduce the bill from virtual schools to zero,” Caulk told the board Tuesday.

Board members pressed him for details on the program, including whether it would be limited to certain students and whether current district students could switch to an online option for some or all classes, but he declined to provide specifics.

Caulk did not return calls for comment Wednesday, but said in an email that he was in the process of responding to the board’s questions.

The email raised questions about the status of the program.

“As you know, we have not moved forward with a launch of the (Virtual Instruction Program) to date. As the materials indicated “draft” on the documents,” he wrote.

On Tuesday, Caulk had said the program was ready, and officials said they had an agreement signed with Pearson, but no students had signed up yet. A copy of the agreement is available at pressherald.com.

Caulk said he and Sharon Pray, director of student support services, had already been recruiting five of the seven district students who have enrolled at a new virtual charter school.

He announced the virtual program in mid-August, writing in his Superintendent’s Notebook column: “We are launching many exciting initiatives this year. … The Portland Public Schools will launch a virtual instruction program in September.”

The question of who can enroll has financial implications, Rier said.

Caulk said the cost of an online schooling curriculum is $4,250, and he estimated that other costs, including a drop-in lab for students and a small subsidy for Internet access, would push the cost to about $5,000 for each student. That means the district could save about $2,000 if a student enrolled in Maine Connections Academy switched to the district’s program.

But Rier said he told Caulk he might be overestimating his savings. For instance, Rier said a student in the district, even if taking classes at home, is likely to be involved in more school events, and that would result in higher costs for the district.

Rier said the program could end up costing the district thousands of dollars a year if other students want to get into the virtual instruction program. A student moving from a regular classroom to the virtual program wouldn’t generate any more state aid and would cost $4,250 a year for the online curriculum.

At the School Board meeting, Chief Academic Officer David Galin said the virtual courses would have to be offered to all students, not just some.

Rier said Caulk told him he was planning a pilot program and that no decision had been made about whether students other than the seven enrolled at Maine Connections Academy would be allowed to take part. Caulk told the board Tuesday that the program was “targeted” at those seven students and was seen as “a short-term solution” to encourage those students to return to the district.

Rier said the state has no role in whether the district provides its virtual schooling program. That’s considered a curriculum issue and is the responsibility of local school boards.

School Board member Justin Costa said Caulk had developed the program over the summer, when the board meets less frequently, so he and other members were surprised by the issue Tuesday night.

“It moved a little bit faster than I was personally prepared for,” Costa said. “This is coming forward for the first time, so naturally there are going to be a lot of questions.”

Caulk will brief the board Sept. 16.

Amy Volk, chair of the Maine Connections Academy Board, isn’t worried about more districts following Portland’s lead and setting up virtual schooling to keep students from leaving the district for a charter school.

“Ultimately, students having a choice is a good thing,” Volk said.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, co-chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said the situation illustrates why a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a bill earlier this year that would have created a state-run virtual school.

The proposal, L.D. 1736, was modeled on successful state-run virtual charter schools such as those in Vermont and New Hampshire, but Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it over a provision that would have frozen the approval of virtual charter schools while the state-run academy got started.

“I think (Superintendent Caulk) is trying to address a real issue he’s facing with the charter schools, and the virtual charter schools in particular,” said Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth. “I wish we could reassure districts that we have a statewide plan and the burden wouldn’t fall on them to figure out all this stuff.”

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