May 23, 2018
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Embattled Baxter Academy wins approval, praise from charter school commission

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Brianna Keliehor’s gusto was a little early, though well-placed on Monday afternoon.

“I’m going to Baxter next year!” bellowed the 13-year-old from Gorham as the Maine Charter School Commission voted in favor of negotiating a contract with Portland-based Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, Maine’s newest and yet-to-be-opened charter school.

“Hold on,” Commission Vice Chairman Richard Barnes said to Keliehor. “There’s one more vote.”

But the final member of the commission voted the same as all the others, giving the Baxter Academy the unanimous go-ahead to open this September for some 160 students from as many as 48 towns in southern and central Maine.

Monday’s approval has been a long time coming and hasn’t been easy, especially for the school’s supporters. Aside from the rigor of the commission’s application process, the fledgling school was thrown into upheaval two months ago when then-Executive Director John Jaques was dismissed from his position in a contentious parting of ways. A legal battle over ownership of the school’s website and other intellectual property is ongoing.

Commission members lauded Baxter officials for sticking with the project through the turmoil and for beefing up several areas of its application from earlier versions.

“Their first targeted student population seemed aggressive, but they proved us wrong,” said Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint, who has been involved in the effort to create the academy. “They have rallied in many ways to prove their desire to have Baxter open. It is apparent that hard times bring out the best in people.”

Commission member Heidi Sampson agreed.

“Despite all the turbulence, the mission of this school has not changed,” said Sampson. “In spite of the tumultuous conditions, they have only strengthened their resolve. Those who have the greatest vested interest have stood in the midst of the storm.”

Richard Barnes, the vice chairman of the commission, said he supported the application but cautioned Baxter officials that they have more work to do in order to be successful in the contract-building phase of the commission’s process. One of those issues is an improvement of the organization’s bylaws and the hiring of staff and an executive director.

Michele LaForge, who will be Baxter’s inaugural head of schools, said progress is being made on both those fronts but has been stalled in recent days while the organization awaited a decision from the commission.

The next step in the process is for the commission and Baxter officials to develop a contract and meet a range of benchmarks such as enrollment projections and rolling out food service and transportation plans.

Baxter Academy, which will be located in Portland, is the fifth charter school to be approved in Maine since the Legislature passed a law allowing them two years ago.

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