Education chairmen want legislative investigation of Baxter Academy

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth
Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth Buy Photo
Posted March 29, 2013, at 11:05 a.m.
Last modified March 29, 2013, at 4:36 p.m.
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — The House and Senate chairmen of the Legislature’s Education Committee are requesting a formal review of Maine’s charter school approval process with a focus on the proposed Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland. The school has been swept into controversy in recent weeks after the dismissal of the school’s founder and executive director.

Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth and Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, both Democrats, are asking that the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee order a review of:

• Baxter Academy’s financial statements and the Maine Charter School Commission process that led to the academy’s approval to open in September;

• Any assistance and guidance the charter school commission provided Baxter Academy during last year’s review process and whether the commission has consistently provided similar assistance to other charter school applicants; and

• Baxter Academy’s financial viability.

“The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee has the responsibility to ensure that the Maine Charter School Commission is conducting its business appropriately and according to its adopted rules and procedures under Chapter 2 of Rules for Independent Agencies,” Millett and MacDonald wrote in a letter to the oversight committee. “Additionally, we want to ensure that this school administrative unit, Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, under Title 20-A, is managing its operations and spending Maine taxpayer dollars appropriately.”

The Government Oversight Committee will take up the request at a meeting Tuesday and decide whether to order a review by the Legislature’s investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA.

Millett and MacDonald’s request, which is dated Thursday, comes as the controversy surrounding the Portland charter high school is escalating.

Baxter Academy found itself in the news earlier this month when founding Executive Director John Jaques was abruptly dismissed after what the school’s board of directors called “a pattern of mismanagement,” including allegations that he never set up a line of credit the organization needed to draw upon to prepare its York Street facility in recent months.

But Jaques responded by accusing the board of firing him to appease a large donor who didn’t like him, and he kept board members locked out of the academy’s original website and Facebook page, triggering a legal battle between the school and its former director over the ownership of the intellectual property.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan last week requested a probe into Baxter Academy by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, citing some of the same concerns raised by Millett and MacDonald. Brennan has been a longtime opponent of Baxter Academy, saying the charter high school will divert precious resources away from the city’s public schools. He’s also opposed charter schools in general in Maine.

Mills on Wednesday denied Brennan’s request to take on a Baxter Academy probe, saying she preferred to allow the charter school commission to carry outs its review of the situation. She also said she didn’t have the authority to fulfill some parts of his request.

Maine passed its charter school law in 2011, becoming the 41st state to allow the independently run, public schools of choice. The law passed during the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature, and most Democrats opposed allowing the schools.

Two charter schools so far are operating in Maine, enrolling about 100 students.

The request for an OPEGA review isn’t about whether charter schools are sound education policy, said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who is chairman of the oversight committee.

“This is 100 percent about the integrity of the outcome and whether the processes and procedures and financial structure are in the best interest of the public and the way government operates,” she said.

Gov. Paul LePage weighed in on the Baxter Academy fracas on Thursday, firing off a letter to Brennan in which he called the mayor’s efforts to order a probe of the charter school “stunningly cynical and shortsighted.” The Republican governor also told Brennan he was “appalled by your constant attacks upon students who simply want to better learn technology and science.”

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