June 18, 2018
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Charter school commission delays vote on proposed Baxter Academy in Portland

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives from the proposed Baxter Academy for Technology and Science will have to wait at least two more weeks before learning the fate of their proposed Portland charter school.

Many expected the Maine Charter School Commission to vote Monday on whether to approve or deny the academy, which is strongly opposed by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan but has support from many in the public and local education field.

The commission’s application review subcommittee recommended approval Monday. But with lingering concerns about the proposed school’s financial figures, commission members voted unanimously Monday to schedule another meeting on the academy’s application for the week of July 16. That meeting most likely will take place on July 17.

The commission on Monday also denied the application for a new charter school in Cornville to replace a public elementary school that was closed two years ago by the SAD 54 board of directors. The commissioners were deadlocked 3-3 on the proposed Cornville Regional Charter School, failing the application with fewer than the five votes needed to pass.

The commission on Friday approved the application for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, an agricultural and forestry-based school for at-risk students to be located at Good Will-Hinckley’s Fairfield campus.

This is the first year charter schools are being considered in Maine after being legalized by the Legislature.

In Portland, Brennan has been outspoken against the approval of a charter school in the city, arguing that allowing tax dollars to follow public school students to a new charter school will strip the public schools of much-needed funded during already difficult economic times. The mayor has pointed out that if even 50 students of Portland Public Schools, at $8,832 in yearly funds apiece, go to a charter school instead, it would cost the school district $441,000.

However, strong Baxter Academy supporters also have made their cases before the commission, with about 50 parents and teachers speaking in favor of it during a commission hearing held in Portland in March. Among those on hand in the packed Augusta conference room Monday was a girl holding a colorful sign reading “Approve Baxter Academy and the Sky’s the Limit.”

At the Monday meeting, commission members largely waved off concerns raised by Brennan and others about the academy siphoning public dollars from local public schools. Commission Chairman James Banks and Vice Chairman William Shuttleworth described the comments as “political” and said they must approve or deny Baxter Academy on the school’s specific merits — not considering arguments against charter schools in a general sense, which were aired during the Legislature’s debate whether to legalize charter schools to begin with.

“The [residents] of Portland have actually been very supportive of us,” said John Jaques, executive director of Baxter Academy, while meeting with reporters after the meeting. “A couple of the political leaders have not been, but I think they’ll come around when they see the value in this, and I think that Baxter is going to be good for Portland and Portland is going to be good for Baxter.”

Jaques said Monday the commission vote postponement is “an unexpected delay, but we’re feeling good about where we are.”

“We have every confidence we’ll get approval and we’ll be able to overcome any delays,” he said.

Jaques maintained that “the likelihood that we’ll open this fall is actually still quite high” assuming the commission approves the school’s application on July 17. That sentiment came despite the stated uncertainty expressed by a number of commission members, who said during the meeting that a January or September 2013 start date would give state education officials and academy representatives more time to renovate the proposed 54 York St. location and get the school’s finances firmed up.

Nearly all commission members who spoke about the issue Monday said they saw promise in Baxter Academy, many likening it to a southern Maine version of the high-performing magnet Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. But they also worried about an accelerated timetable for opening the school, for which a contract still must be worked out between the state Department of Transportation and the academy after the commission takes its vote.

“I believe there’s a need for a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] school in southern Maine, but I think we raised false hopes in the public and false hopes for ourselves [about how quickly one could be started up],” said commission member Richard Barnes.

Questions among commission members on Monday arose about the academy’s budget plan, which includes $175,000 in federal grant money that has yet to be awarded, as well as a $500,000 line of low-interest credit school officials have secured.

Pledges made by Jaques not to accept payment until either the grant money is awarded or that money is otherwise raised by the academy from other sources, as well as the announcement that accomplished nonprofit fundraiser Andrea Berry was named the new president of the academy board of directors, helped answer those questions Monday — but not enough for the commission to vote on the school’s application.

Baxter Academy officials have submitted two budget proposals to the commission — one assuming the school would have 160 students in its inaugural year, and one assuming 100 students.

But Shuttleworth noted a number of factors he felt could reduce that enrollment further — and thus reduce the amount in per-student funding the academy would get to help operate. He said the short window before the fall semester, coupled with the fact that the York Street facility will not be ready early enough for prospective students to tour, could hurt Baxter Academy’s initial population.

He also pointed out that while academy leaders had proposed cutting transportation for the students in its first year to curb the school’s start-up budget, that step also could limit who enrolls and would reduce the amount in transportation-specific subsidies — between $300 and $500 per student — factored into the per-student state funding for the institution.

“What happens to this budget if they get 80 students?” Shuttleworth posed.

Among the information the commission will seek from Baxter representatives by the July 17 meeting is another budget factoring in fewer than 100 students.

According to the academy’s website, the school had received 40 complete student applications by June 27. Jaques said he expects that number to increase dramatically once the school’s application is approved.

“We’ve submitted a budget scenario of 160 students, which is a very reasonable number considering the population of Portland and the Greater Portland area, and we’ve submitted a budget scenario of 100 students,” he said. “That’s still a very, very reasonable scenario. We have had 10,000 hits in the past three weeks on our Facebook page and we’ve had a large number of inquiries into whether or not we’re going to be approved for the fall. So I would say 160 is very likely, and I’m even more comfortable with 100. I don’t believe it’s reasonable to ask us to provide them with yet another budget scenario.”

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