June 21, 2018
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State won’t immediately investigate drama-plagued Portland charter school

Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville
By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee decided Tuesday to wait before determining whether to seek an investigation of Baxter Academy, the controversy-plagued Portland charter school scheduled to open this fall.

Specifically, committee members chose to let the Maine Charter Schools Commission address Baxter Academy’s issues during the commission’s scheduled meeting Monday. Republicans on the Government Oversight Committee urged their colleagues on the panel to let that meeting occur before deciding whether to ask the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to launch a probe.

“I just don’t see the emergency,” Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, a member of the committee, told the Bangor Daily News after Tuesday’s meeting.

Without a formal vote during Tuesday’s special meeting, the Government Oversight Committee opted to wait until its next scheduled meeting on April 12 to revisit the question of whether to ask OPEGA to move forward with an investigation. Instead, the committee asked OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft to complete a checklist to frame the issues that a probe would address.

“It would be a far different process for this committee if the charter commission revokes the [Baxter Academy] approval,” Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said. “I am going to assume that the commission is going to do its job and do it well. We should wait until they do so before we take action.”

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the committee’s House co-chairman, concurred. “Let’s give the commission a chance to do its job,” he said. “They’re asking all the right questions.”

Kruger said a broader study of what would happen to students and money if a charter school fails would be warranted.

Amid recent turmoil related to Baxter Academy’s leadership and finances, Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth and Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, Democrats who co-chair the Education Committee, asked for a review of the following matters:

• 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.

• Baxter Academy’s financial viability.

Ashcroft told the committee Tuesday that the first two items fall within the purview of her agency. She said the Maine Charter Schools Commission is the appropriate entity to determine the financial viability of Baxter Academy.

The request from Millett and MacDonald came after Maine Attorney General Janet Mills declined Portland Mayor Michael Brennan’s request that her office investigate Baxter Academy because the Maine Commission on Charter Schools has the authority to ensure the academy’s finances are sound.

Brennan’s request drew a sharp rebuke from Gov. Paul LePage and cemented Baxter Academy’s place at the heart of a simmering conflict over charter schools, a centerpiece of LePage’s education reform strategy.

Two charter schools opened in fall 2012, and other applications are pending. Current legislation allows for 10 public charter schools in Maine.

With GOP majorities in the House and Senate, the previous Legislature in 2011 passed a law that made Maine the 41st state to allow publicly funded charter schools. Since then, public school officials, municipal leaders and representatives of Maine’s teachers’ union have criticized aspects of the way LePage’s administration has implemented the charter school law.

The issue has become increasingly contentious, with Republicans labeling those criticisms as attempts by Democrats and their allies to gut charter schools in Maine. Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, who serves on both the Education and Government Oversight committees, told his colleagues on the latter panel that Millett’s and MacDonald’s request for an OPEGA review derives, in large part, from a desire to quell political tensions related to the “mess” that has formed around Baxter Academy’s application and charter schools in general.

Baxter Academy became a center of controversy last 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.

Jaques responded by accusing the board of firing him to appease a large donor who didn’t like him, and 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.

Johnson said he hopes the charter commission will get answers to questions about who owns the intellectual property and the cost of potential litigation related to that dispute.

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