AUGUSTA, Maine — Baxter Academy for Technology and Science has been granted conditional approval to open as a charter school in Portland, although a year later than academy advocates initially had planned.
The Maine Charter School Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the application for Baxter Academy, which has drawn the ire of Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, but which has built up strong support among many southern Maine parents and educators.
As recently as the commission’s previous meeting on the subject on July 2, Baxter Academy officials maintained that they could start classes this fall if granted approval no later than Tuesday’s meeting. But academy leaders backed away from that ambitious schedule in recent days, and on Tuesday afternoon, Baxter Academy Executive Director John Jaques said the new proposed opening date of September 2013 “allows for a much more comfortable start.”
The school organization’s acceptance of a fall 2013 start date helped alleviate commission concerns about the narrowing window of time available to enroll new students and renovate the proposed 54 York St. facility eyed as the academy’s home building — concerns that contributed to the commission’s delay in voting on the application on July 2.
“We’re happy to have the extra time for planning and for fundraising, and to recruit students,” Jaques told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “The timeline was getting so challenging, it just became impractical.”
Also on Tuesday, the commission overturned its previous denial of an application for a charter school in Cornville, which would in part replace a public elementary school closed by the SAD 54 board of directors two years ago. On July 2, the commission deadlocked 3-3 on the Cornville Regional Charter School application, falling short of the five votes necessary for passage.
In a second vote on the topic Tuesday, the commission reconsidered and approved the Cornville application 5-1, Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said.
Maine’s 2011 charter school law allows the approval of up to 10 public charter schools over 10 years by the 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.
The commission has granted approval to three charter schools: Baxter Academy, Cornville Regional and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, which was given the OK on June 29.
The conditions placed on Baxter Academy’s approval Tuesday are that the school submit an updated application by Sept. 30, and that it complete negotiations with state officials over its official charter language by Jan. 30, 2013.
The Cornville school may open within 60 days of its completed charter negotiations, a time frame that may allow the facility to open as soon as October, Connerty-Marin said Tuesday.
Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen called the commission’s passage of the two schools Tuesday “great news for Maine’s efforts to give more students and families choices in their education.”
“We know that the status quo is not working,” Bowen said in a late Tuesday afternoon statement. “We need to look to a variety of new opportunities, including those found at these public charter schools, to improve student engagement and achievement. We’re off to a great start with these approvals, and I hope we continue to approve schools that focus on different learning strengths while sharing a common goal: offering innovative, flexible education curricula to students throughout Maine.”
Promoted as a southern Maine answer to the high-performing magnet Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, Baxter Academy became controversial in recent months as the proposed school was strongly opposed by Brennan, Portland’s first publicly elected mayor in 88 years. Brennan decried the per-pupil state funding that would follow Portland public school students away from Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools to the new charter school in the city.
Even more recently, as it appeared the Baxter Academy application’s fate was uncertain, a group of Portland area parents organized as vocal supporters of the school — calling themselves Friends of Baxter Academy — and pledging to help raise funds and awareness for the fledgling institution.
Jaques has said delaying the start of school at Baxter Academy for a year will not jeopardize his organization’s application for $175,000 in federal startup grant money, nor will it seriously threaten its core faculty team, made up of 11 instructors who he said are mostly teachers currently under public school contracts in the Portland area.
“We’ll probably have a couple of folks who end up finding other things, but we met as a staff to go over the scenario, and everybody had mixed emotions, but overall were relieved to have a little more time for planning,” Jaques said.
Jaques said that, with the extra year of outreach and fundraising, he’s more confident Baxter Academy will open with its goal enrollment of 160 freshmen and sophomores, with more students to be added in the following years.
The academy announced earlier this month that accomplished nonprofit fundraiser Andrea Berry has taken over as its board president and that the school has secured a $500,000 line of low-interest credit it can draw upon while seeking private donors and foundation grants to bolster its finances.