AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Charter School Commission, which has been working feverishly in recent months through several applications for Maine’s first charter schools, is short-handed following the recent resignation of one of its members and a lack of paid staff to support its activities.
Both of those issues should be resolved by the end of September with the appointment of a new commissioner and the hiring of an executive director and administrative assistant, according to members of the commission.
Commission member Donald Mordecai resigned unexpectedly several weeks ago for personal reasons, according to commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint, and Friday the commission called for applicants to submit letters of interest in the unpaid position by Aug. 10.
Lapoint and Commission Vice Chairman Richard Barnes said though there are many people in Maine interested in serving on the commission — there were more than 30 qualified applicants in the last round of appointments — Mordecai’s expertise in education finance issues will be difficult to replace.
His resignation comes as the commission continues to evaluate applications, formulates and signs contracts and enters a new phase of its responsibility: making sure the schools that have been approved follow the law and achieve the benchmarks they have set for themselves.
“All of us on the commission have some background in finance, but we’re looking for someone who is really going to wrap their arms around the finances,” said Lapoint. “Don [Mordecai] could take a quick look at a balance sheet and just dissect it very quickly. He could just zero right in very quickly.”
At the core of the commission’s approval process, among other things, is ensuring that each applicant has a viable business plan when it comes to everything from transportation to curriculum. The commission’s role then becomes one of oversight. Because charter schools in Maine were legalized by the Legislature last year and the commission didn’t receive its first applications until a few months ago, the commission has worked through several extensive applications, three of which have been approved.
Aside from the cramped schedule, those approvals have come amid close scrutiny from educators and the public — some of whom have opposed the idea from the outset — and Gov. Paul LePage, who last month suggested that commission members speed up the process for evaluating applications for virtual charter schools or resign.
To date, the commission has approved the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at the former Goodwill-Hinckley school in Fairfield, which already is operating as a magnet school; the Cornville Regional Charter School, which seeks to set up in an elementary school that was closed for budget reasons; and the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science in Portland, which last week announced it would open in September 2013 instead of this fall, as originally planned.
“The vacancy we have has really deprived us of some expertise in financial matters,” said Barnes.
Lapoint said at least seven people have expressed interest in serving on the commission. The board will review the applications and send its nomination to the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, which in turn will send the matter to the State Board of Education for approval. Lapoint said the new board member ideally will be appointed in time for the commission to begin deliberations on a new round of applications due by the end of September.
According to Barnes and Lapoint, the commission is also in the process of developing a job description for a new part-time executive director and a full-time administrative assistant. The state’s charter school law did not fund those positions fully, but Lapoint said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has found money within the department to cover them.
Education Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the original charter school legislation asked for $150,000 to fund staff positions this year, but that amount was pared back before the bill became law. The Legislature appropriated $10,000 this year and $20,000 next year and authorized Bowen to find up to $150,000 within existing Department of Education resources for the commission.
Bowen was able to find $80,000 in the current fiscal year, said Connerty-Marin, and long-term the commission will collect 3 percent of charter school tuition money toward its operating costs.
Lapoint said the positions will be crucial to the smooth operation of the commission as it deals with more administrative tasks and will give potential and existing charter schools an accessible point of contact.
“We’re all volunteers. There has been no one for an applicant to go to when they’re working on an application,” said Lapoint. “You have to understand that there are only seven of us on the board. Most of us have been putting 20 to 30 hours a week into this since January. We’ve had a very tight timeline, but we’ve met every deadline that we’ve set for ourselves.”
Aside from bricks-and-mortar charter schools, the commission has received applications for virtual charter schools, which students would be able to attend via the Internet. The commission has several meetings scheduled in the next few weeks, including one on July 31 to consider signing final contracts with the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and the Cornville Regional Charter School, and an Aug. 7 meeting when it will consider the new executive director’s job description.
Applicants interested in sitting on the charter school commission should provide a cover letter and resume to Jennifer Pooler, Maine Charter School Commission, 23 State House Station, Augusta, ME, 04333-0023 by Aug. 10. For more information, contact Pooler at 624-6638 or by email at Jennifer.Pooler@maine.gov.