April 26, 2018
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Maine virtual charter school organization seeks reconsideration of failed application

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The fate of a virtual public charter school whose application failed in March lies in the hands of two members of the Maine Charter School Commission who voted against it.

According to commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint, Maine Virtual Academy is seeking a second vote on its application to begin online offerings this fall in Maine under the state’s three-year-old charter school law.

At its March 5 meeting, the commission denied MVA’s application on the same day that it approved another application from Maine Connections Academy, which is on track to open in the fall as the state’s first virtual public charter school. It takes five votes, or two-thirds of the commission, to approve a charter school application, so the 4-3 march vote in favor of Maine Virtual Academy was not sufficient to approve its application.

Lapoint said under the commission’s procedural rules, one of the commissioners who voted against the application would have to agree to the reconsideration. Those commissioners include Shelley Reed, J. Michael Wilhelm and Heidi Sampson, though Sampson has since left the commission and been replaced by former Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor.

That leaves the reconsideration decision to either Reed or Wilhelm, according to Lapoint, who said Monday that she’s unsure of their thoughts on the issue.

“I think they’re still considering whether they’re going to do this or not,” said Lapoint.

Due to commission rules, Lapoint is the only commissioner who speaks to the media.

The reasons for the commission’s March 5 rejection centered on misgivings about training and governance, including the commission’s objection to Maine Virtual Academy’s vendor, Virginia-based K12 Inc., handling the hiring of teachers as opposed to Maine Virtual Academy’s board. Lapoint said there was also concern about the commitment of the organization’s board of directors to the project.

Amy Carlisle of Falmouth is president of the board of directors for Maine Learning Innovations, which is the parent organization of Maine Virtual Academy. She said having the local board oversee hiring is a relatively easy fix — though she said the organization believes that K12 “has a specialty in understanding the online teaching area” — but that the commission’s stance about the commitment of board members was troubling.

“That was a particularly difficult pill to swallow,” said Carlisle on Monday. “Seven of eight board members have been founding members of our board and very, very committed to our charter process.”

Carlisle said some of the board members had other commitments to the Legislature during at least two of the commission’s meeting dates, which could have led to the impression that they were not fully engaged in the process. They include Peter Mills, director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford, and Cianbro lobbyist Tim Walton.

Lapoint said Maine Virtual Academy has submitted additional information to the commission, but the full commission will not see that information unless a motion to reconsider is successful.

“The decision must be made on what [Maine Virtual Academy] had previously submitted to us, not on any new information they have sent to us since,” said Lapoint.

If the commission reverses its decision and approves the application, the virtual school would have a tight timeline for meeting various benchmarks, including the enrollment of a certain number of students by next month and starting classes in September.

“I think at this point that would be very, very difficult,” said Lapoint, though she added that the commission could choose to extend some of the deadlines.

Carlisle said the organization is committed to opening in the fall if its application is successful.

“Obviously we’re going to be on a condensed timeline,” said Carlisle. “Certainly we would have to ramp up immediately for everything to go forward. We do feel we’ve addressed the outstanding issues of our application and hope that the commission will vote in our favor.”

The charter commission is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Cross Office Building adjacent to the State House in Augusta. Also on the agenda is the signing of a final contract with Maine Connections Academy. Lapoint said to her knowledge there are no outstanding problems with Maine Connections Academy’s contract.

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