KENNEBUNK, Maine — Concerns that a state commission’s rejection of four out of five charter school applications Tuesday would have a chilling effect on future applications already has proven true for at least one would-be charter school.
The Heartwood Charter School for Visual and Performing Arts in Kennebunk was one of the four applications rejected Tuesday by the Maine Charter School Commission, and one of three where the major problem was the organization’s proposed governance structure. Berri Kramer, president of the Heartwood Charter School and director of the already existing Heartwood College of Art, said she realizes now that she was part of the problem. She had planned to sit on the board of directors, but also to teach a few art classes and take care of some administrative duties.
That flies in the face of Maine’s year-old charter school law, which calls explicitly for an independent board ultimately responsible for finances, curriculum and hiring and firing, among other things. Kramer said fixing the governance problem would have been easy if her organization had had the chance.
“There’s always a way to give them what they’re looking for if we know what they’re looking for,” said Kramer. “I would have just not been on the board. I would have had someone else step into that position. You would think that when everybody got the same thing wrong, they’d give everyone a second chance.”
But Kramer said her conversations Wednesday with Charter School Commission Executive Director Bob Kautz left her little hope that the Heartwood application could be revised in the current round, which she said essentially kills the project. Another year is too long to wait, especially for a maybe.
“We already had a facility but we’re not going to pay rent on that just hoping our application would be approved,” she said. “We could be up against a very small correction like that again. The application is a huge endeavor and very risky when you get to that level of commitment.”
Kramer estimated that between labor, fees to the IRS to form a nonprofit organization, as well as the cost of producing 10 hard copies and digital replicas of the 300-page document, the application cost about $25,000 to produce.
“It was really months of work,” she said. “It’s like a major term paper that everyone’s doing.”
Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, said Wednesday that the expectations on governance and a host of other issues are clear within Maine law and in a request for proposals circulated last summer. She said the commission does not intend to reopen any of the failed applications, despite intense pressure from Gov. Paul LePage, who on Wednesday asked the entire commission to resign because of its votes Tuesday.
While it’s possible under Robert’s Rules of Order for the board to revisit an earlier decision — which the commission actually did last year in the case of the Cornville Charter School — Lapoint said the changes needed in the failed applications are substantial.
“It’s not as easy as just deleting a few things,” she said. “To say it would have been easy to fix is just not accurate. At what point do you say yes and at what point do you say no? [Heartwood] had a very fine application until it got to the point of their governance.”
Lapoint said not unlike the applicants, the all-volunteer commission spends a huge amount of time reviewing the applications and advancing the process under a tight timeline.
Even if Heartwood’s and the other three failed applications had passed Tuesday’s milestone, they were still a long way from final approval. Each would have been required to hold a public hearing and interviews with the commission, which would then take a final vote by mid-February. After that, the organizations would have had to negotiate and sign contracts with the commission by April 1, and accomplish myriad benchmarks ranging from meeting enrollment goals to hiring staff and executing their financial plans.
Joe Grady is one of the founders of the Harpswell Coastal Academy, which submitted the only application approved for advancement by the commission Tuesday. He said he fully expects the school to open in September, but there are many hurdles between now and then.
“We have a whole host of things between now and when we open our doors that we are responsible for,” said Grady. “We’re working on a very large task list that has been extrapolated from the templates in the application.”
And then there’s always the money. Funding that will come to the school with its sixth- and ninth-grade students won’t arrive until September, and there are startup costs between now and then.
“So far we’ve raised about one-third of our pre-opening budget, which so far has been according to plan,” said Brady. “We feel like it’s hard to really ask for too much money without knowing that we’ve got final approval. We’re feeling pretty good that we made it through [Tuesday’s] vote and we’re psyched to move forward.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy’s public hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 18 in the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall. One of the people certain to attend the hearing is Brad Smith, superintendent of SAD 75, which encompasses Harpswell. He said it remains to be seen how many of the district’s students will attend Harpswell Coastal Academy and that his first concern is that those students receive an adequate education.
“I have to trust that since the charter school was approved that their application has satisfied the commission,” said Smith. “As a school system, my concern is how the potential loss of students will impact us … When enrollment goes down, a school system’s ability to continue to provide their programs is impaired. This is an unknown for us.”
Harpswell Coastal Academy hopes to attract a total of between 40 and 80 students in the first year. Smith said each student that leaves his district will pull at least $6,900 away, based on a formula that considers a range of factors related to the student. The fact that the nearby charter school is seeking sixth- and ninth-graders means the effect on those grades in the public school could be pronounced enough to affect staffing needs.
It wouldn’t be the first time that programs and staffing in SAD 75, which lost hundreds of students with the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station, has been cut in recent budget cycles.
But Smith is not wholly opposed to the charter school if it accomplishes what it says it will.
“We need to make sure that our charter schools are providing the kind of education those kids need and deserve,” he said. “I see that as a win for those kids. If it turns out the other way, that would be really unfortunate.”