Bangor, state don’t see eye-to-eye in early meeting about charter schools

Posted July 17, 2013, at 8:26 p.m.
Last modified July 18, 2013, at 5:38 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A senior adviser to Gov. Paul LePage listened Wednesday to concerns about charter school policy voiced by Bangor officials who are wary of allowing such a school in the city. But the LePage administration isn’t budging on its support of charter school growth in the state, city officials were told.

“We’re certainly willing to talk about this, but we’re not willing to talk about ending charter schools in Maine,” said Jonathan Nass, LePage’s senior policy adviser.

Nass met with several Bangor city councilors, City Manager Cathy Conlow, City Solicitor Norm Heitmann and Bangor School Committee member Warren Caruso Wednesday, several weeks after the city requested a meeting to outline its concerns.

In June, Bangor City Councilors passed a moratorium on charter schools after a failed bid earlier in the year to create a Queen City Academy charter school at the former site of the Bangor YMCA on Hammond Street. Councilor Joseph Baldacci has said the city could choose to extend that moratorium after it expires until the state addresses Bangor’s concerns.

“I’m not entirely sure that moratorium is binding,” Nass told Baldacci, saying that attorneys for the state believe moratoriums could be overridden if a charter school were to be approved in Bangor.

Bangor city and public school officials were surprised to hear about the school proposal, as no one from the group behind the school or the state had contacted them. They only heard about the application when the Portland Press Herald reported on its rejection in March.

The Maine Charter School Commission shot down the Queen City Academy plan largely because it didn’t adequately explain how the school would be financed. The group that proposed the school projected it would serve about 420 Bangor-area students in grades 6-12. The group said it likely would consider applying again.

The projected charter-school student population concerns Bangor officials because for each student the city loses to another school, it loses about $9,000 in funding that would have gone toward the education of that student in Bangor’s public school system. That loss of revenue would mean significant tax increases for Bangor residents, they said.

LePage has been a strong advocate for charter schools in Maine, in large part because of his own educational experiences at Catholic schools as a child.

“What we know is that not all students are the same,” and sometimes the best opportunities for individual students are outside public schools, Nass said. “If we’re going to put students first, we need to give them options.”

Nass argued that even though the funding would shift from Bangor’s existing schools in order to fund a charter school, the cost of education at Bangor’s schools also would decrease if they had fewer students. Nass also said that a little competition might prompt Bangor and other high schools with nearby charter schools to improve performance and offer more in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) areas. City councilors and school officials have argued that Bangor schools already have a STEM Academy that is meeting those needs.

Conlow questioned whether “diluting” the funding pool between charter and municipal schools would also dilute the quality of the schools.

Baldacci and City Council Chairman Nelson Durgin said they were bothered and concerned by the fact that city officials never heard that a charter school was being considered for Bangor until after the state had already rejected it.

“From our perspective, we need to have local involvement in the decision making process,” Baldacci said.

Nass also pointed out that charter schools have an oversight that municipal schools don’t — their charters can be revoked if they don’t meet their standards and obligations. Bangor officials at the meeting said they are frustrated by continued state mandates to fund new pursuits, such as charter schools, without offering municipalities additional allocations to pay for them.

“We can’t continue to make decisions and mandates that put pressure on communities,” but only serve a few students, Caruso argued.

Nass and the city plan to schedule a future meeting to continue discussions about how to address the city’s concerns about charter schools.

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