Potential charter school applicants gearing up

Posted July 08, 2011, at 8:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The new charter school law signed by Gov. Paul LePage last week won’t go into effect until September, but already there are groups and organizations from “every corner of the state” showing interest, according to education officials.

From a closed elementary school in rural Cornville to the former Hampden Academy to a tiny alternative education program based in The County, there are numerous organizations in various stages of pursuing charter school status, though many say the law is still so new that they’re still determining whether it’s right for them.

Judith Jones, president of the Maine Association of Charter Schools, an organization which has advocated for allowing charter schools in Maine for more than a decade, said there are at least two dozen schools, organizations and community groups in Maine that have to some extent shown interest in forming charter schools. But the number is growing, she said.

“We just keep getting more and more inquiries,” said Jones. “We literally have every corner of the state with people who are at least starting to think of it.”

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, an ardent charter school supporter, said his office has also received numerous inquiries, especially since last week when Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1553, An Act to Create a Charter School Program in Maine.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand here and there’s been a steady stream of inquiries,” said Bowen Thursday. “Unfortunately I have to tell them let’s slow this down. We’re only now starting to think about how we’re going to start to think about implementing this law. We’re not rushing into anything.”

The law allows the approval of up to 10 public charter schools in the next 10 years by a yet-to-be-formed state commission. In addition, individual public school boards can convert schools within their district into charter schools, which allows them to create education programs free from some of the restrictions and regulations that apply to public schools. No charter schools can be approved before July 2012, according to the law.

Even with the program in its infancy, some groups are aggressively pursuing charter school status. In the southern Somerset County town of Cornville, a group of parents and community members calling itself Friends of the Cornville Regional Charter School are moving toward forming a K-8 program in the former Cornville Elementary School, which was closed last year by the SAD 54 board of directors in part to balance the district’s budget.

Justin and Sandra Belanger of Cornville, who have home-schooled their 7- and 10-year-old children since the school’s closure, are part of a core group of about 25 people pushing the local effort.

“We became interested in having a charter school when our school was threatened,” said Sandra Belanger, who was a teacher at the now-closed school and who still teaches in SAD 54. “We were very happy with the public school option when it was here in town.”

Justin Belanger said his group hopes to submit a charter school application to the state commission later this year, essentially as soon as applications are accepted. Belanger said he doesn’t think there is support from the SAD 54 school board for a locally controlled charter school, though district Superintendent Brent Colbry said neither he nor the board has taken a position on the issue.

“I’m aware of the group from Cornville, but we have not had any conversations about this,” said Colbry. “Whether or not a charter school is formed in Cornville is very speculative.”

The Cornville group hopes its early-years program will meld with the former Goodwill-Hinckley School in Fairfield, which is reinventing itself as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and could become Maine’s first charter school, according to its president, Glenn Cummings. The Fairfield school’s board has yet to make final decisions, but Cummings has said the charter school model, particularly the provision that requires public school money to follow students to the charter school of their choice, is attractive.

“There are probably more pros than cons,” said Cummings recently. “We’ll likely start putting together our application this fall.”

Rick Lyons, superintendent of the Hampden-area SAD 22, said he has long been interested in the public charter school model and can envision one in the former Hampden Academy building. However, the district’s board has yet to discuss the issue formally.

“We’re not even down the road yet talking about a charter school, an innovative school or a magnet school,” he said. “We certainly want to be ahead of the curve with respect to any possibilities that are out there. The way I look at it, the new legislation gives public schools and parents another option to consider.”

Joe Alex, who with his wife runs the Old Town-based Stillwater Montessori school, said he has been following the charter school legislation keenly, but is unsure whether it’d be worth it to convert from a private school to a public charter school.

“We have been interested in the past but now I’m not sure if we want to do it or not,” he said.

Alan Morris, principal and founder of the Island Falls-based Carleton Project, said his privately run organization faces a similar choice as Alex’s: whether to abandon its successful private school model — which provides services to students through contracts with public schools — for a charter school. The irony of that situation is not lost on Morris, who was one of the founders of the Maine Association of Charter Schools and who has long fought to bring charter schools to Maine.

The Carleton project operates in Presque Isle, Houlton, Bangor, Winthrop and as of next fall, Lincoln. All told, there are about 40 students. Morris said it’s taken more than a decade to solidify his relationships with the public schools he serves and is reluctant to interrupt those relationships. In addition, he’s unsure if the new legislation would consider his five locations as a single charter school.

“I have no interest in getting in my car and going to Augusta to explain why five schools is really one; I’m done fighting,” said Morris. “We’ve spent 14 years forming relationships with schools. We’ve got everything we need right now.”

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