Bangor councilors likely to extend charter school moratorium as talks with state delayed

Posted Dec. 04, 2013, at 2:43 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor City Council likely will extend its temporary ban on charter schools into next summer in order to hash out a disagreement with the state about how new competition for students would affect the public school system and Bangor taxpayers.

City Councilor Joe Baldacci, who proposed the initial moratorium that went into effect in June, proposed adding an additional 180 days to the ban during a meeting of the city’s Government Operations Committee on Monday night. The original moratorium expires on Dec. 18.

The ban stems from 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. The group behind the plan was backed by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam living in Pennsylvania who has been linked to about 120 charter schools in 26 states, according to national news outlets.

The school projected it would serve 420 Bangor-area students in grades 6-12. However, the Maine Charter School Commission rejected the proposal because it didn’t adequately explain how the school would be financed. The group proposing the school said it would consider another attempt in the future.

Councilors and Bangor school officials say the city stands to lose up to $9,000 in funding for each student that leaves the public school system to attend a charter school. Local officials also have said they were surprised by the charter school proposal, as no one from the group behind the school or the state had contacted them.

Bangor officials sought a meeting with then-Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen over the summer, but he resigned in August to take a job with the national Council of Chief State School Officers. The announcement and transition to acting Commissioner Jim Rier caused the meeting to be pushed back several times, but councilors say it has been set for early January.

In June, councilors and city officials met with Jonathan Nass, senior policy adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, to discuss the moratorium and air their concerns about charter schools and their potential effects on the local school system.

The LePage administration has been a strong supporter of charter schools.

“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 during his meeting with counselors. “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, or STEM, areas. City councilors and school officials have argued that Bangor schools already have a STEM Academy that is meeting those needs.

Several councilors have said they support the concept of charter schools, especially in communities where school systems are dangerous or ineffective, but that this wasn’t the case in Bangor.

Baldacci said one of his biggest concerns about charter schools is that they are run by private boards.

Nass also said he believed the state could override the city’s moratorium if needed.

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