Two Maine virtual charter school applications gain initial commission approval

Posted Jan. 30, 2014, at 3:18 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Two proposals that could become Maine’s first virtual charter schools were among three applications that the Maine Charter School Commission voted to move forward Thursday.

The commission rejected applications by the same two virtual charter school groups at this stage of the process last year — after tabling action on their proposals in 2012.

The commission’s votes Thursday set the stage for further consideration of the proposals over the next several weeks, including public hearings and in-depth interviews with the applicants next week. The board will take final votes in March, after which contract negotiations with the successful applicants will begin.

Schools that successfully navigate that process could open this fall.

The commission on Thursday voted to continue considering applications from the two virtual charter schools, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy, as well as a bid by the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School. Commissioners voted unanimously against the proposed Many Hands Montessori School in Windham, which a subcommittee of the commission determined did not have a complete enough application.

Preliminary approval of the two virtual schools comes amid a long-running debate around the creation of online schools that has raged since 2011, when Maine’s charter school law was enacted. In June 2012, the Maine Charter School Commission opted to effectively table applications from Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy until commission members could train themselves to properly evaluate the proposals. Then the panel rejected the proposals last year, citing concerns about the organizations’ proposed governance structures.

Thursday’s initial unanimous votes in favor of those two applications weren’t without concerns that commission members said would have to be addressed before final approval. One concern raised about both applications is the salaries that are proposed for teachers, which Commissioner Ande Smith said were “right around the state minimum for entry-level teachers.” He and others said they worried that low salaries could create high turnover for the schools and, in some cases, make it difficult to attract quality candidates.

Another concern centered on the organizations’ governance structures, specifically whether their boards of directors will have the expertise to carry out the ambitious task of creating something that’s new to Maine.

“For this school to be successful, the CEO or school principal is just going to have to be a crackerjack person,” said Smith in regard to Maine Connections Academy, which was a statement echoed later during consideration of Maine Virtual Academy.

“If they hire a weak person, that school will be set up for failure,” said Smith. “If they hire a strong person, they’ll succeed.”

There was considerable discussion about what the schools will do to recruit students while ensuring that the students would thrive while doing their schooling online from locations all over Maine — in most cases from their homes.

“Ultimately we want success for the students and starting and stopping something midway is not successful,” said Commissioner Heidi Sampson. “What were some of their approaches that they were going to be using to assure that parents understand that this isn’t for everybody?”

The commission’s consideration of the virtual schools comes concurrently with a proposal in the Legislature that would place a moratorium on virtual schools during the development of a state-run virtual school that would be operational by Aug. 1, 2016. LD 1736 is scheduled for a public hearing by the Legislature’s Education Committee on Tuesday.

Part of the process moving forward involves public hearings that are scheduled for next week:

— The in-person interview for the applicants behind Maine Connections Academy are scheduled for Monday from noon to 3 p.m. in the Richard J. Randall Student Center Lounge at the University of Maine at Augusta. A public hearing will follow at the same location from 4 to 7 p.m. and written comments will be accepted by the commission until 1 p.m. on Feb. 11.

— Interviews around the Maine Virtual Academy are scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, also in the Randall Student Center Lounge at UMA. A public hearing in that location is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. that evening.

— The in-person interviews for the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School are scheduled for noon to 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, in Room 103 of Kirk Hall at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. A public hearing will follow at the same location from 4 to 7 p.m. and written comments will be accepted by the commission through 1 p.m. on Feb. 15.

Written comments on any of the applications can be emailed to mscs@maine.gov or sent by mail to the Maine Charter School Commission, 182 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0182. Submissions can also be hand-delivered to the fifth floor of the Cross State House Office Building in Augusta.

Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools when it enacted a law aggressively pushed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2011. The law allows the commission to authorize 10 public charter schools — not affiliated with existing school districts — within the first 10 years after its enactment. Five charter schools now operate in Maine.

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