Maine Department of Education: Brunswick board erred in charter school discussions

Posted Nov. 04, 2013, at 2:09 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 04, 2013, at 5:36 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — An ad hoc subcommittee of the Brunswick School Board did not abide by state law when negotiating a proposed international charter school with a local businessman and must “back the process up” and start again, a state education official said Monday.

Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs for the Maine Department of Education, said Monday that she would contact Brunswick School Board Chairman Jim Grant to discuss how the school board would need to move forward should it wish to pursue authorizing a charter school — a process governed by Maine law.

“I think maybe they weren’t thinking about that when they were looking at different options for partnership,” Friedman said. “I will be contacting the school board chair to say … ‘If you want to become an authorizer of charter schools, the process needs to be very different and here is how it needs to go.’”

The Brunswick School Board would be the first to authorize a charter school under Maine’s first charter school law passed in 2011. The Maine Charter School Commission oversees charter schools that operate independently of school districts.

In September, Grant reported to the full school board on two meetings with John Stadler, a local businessman who in April proposed collaborating with the Brunswick School Department to create Brunswick Landing International School.

Stadler, who in 1995 founded a charter school in Massachusetts, said the Stadler Foundation would pay $125,000 toward startup costs for the Brunswick charter school, which would be available to all students, primarily funded through tuition from international students, and which would open as early as September 2014.

According to school board meeting minutes, Grant said in September that “plans are being made to study and formulate what the school would look like, generate a program, study student interest, decide if there should be a donation/gift of funds to explore the feasibility, and investigate the need to hire a person to assist the superintendent to handle the extra workload.”

Discussion at an Oct. 23 school board workshop prompted former Brunswick School Board member Michelle Small to contact the Department of Education and Maine attorney general’s office last week, charging that the subcommittee violated the charter school law by entering into discussions with Stadler before issuing a request for proposals and considering all applicants. Small also contended that school officials violated Maine’s Freedom of Access Act by meeting at least once without giving public notice or keeping minutes of the meeting.

She said a draft memorandum of understanding circulated to board members also would violate the charter school law because it outlines a “dollar for dollar” revenue-sharing agreement through which the charter school would purchase services from the Brunswick schools to compensate for the amount of state reimbursement to education lost by Brunswick students who would attend the charter.

On Monday, Friedman said a number of aspects of the proposal — including the problems identified by Small — raised concerns.

Friedman said she didn’t realize the proposal “had gone this far to being solidified” because she hadn’t heard anything since a September phone call from subcommittee member Bill Thompson. When she did not hear back from Brunswick officials, Friedman “assumed they had decided not to go forward.”

Friedman said the proposed financial arrangement between Brunswick and the charter school “seems somewhat inappropriate … school boards in some ways have to have sort of an arms-length relationship, to some extent — the school board has to hold the charter-founder accountable.”

While it would be feasible, and even recommended, that a charter school purchase services from a local school, the statute clearly states that the school may not be required to purchase them as a condition of charter approval.

“I do think Brunswick and Mr. Stadler are trying to work out something that is mutually beneficial, but it’s a little too close,’” she said.

Friedman said that when Stadler last contacted the Department of Education in 2012 to say he was considering a school for international students and students from Maine, state officials clarified for him that he could not reserve spots for international students in a charter school.

“I think it’s great that school boards are thinking about, ‘How can charter schools be beneficial to us and our students,’ but because it’s the first time this is being done, they need to be clear on what they can and cannot do, and what benefit it does and doesn’t provide to the district and the area,” she said.

Grant said Monday afternoon that the subcommittee members met with Stadler to discuss his proposal for an international program and only used the term “charter school” as “a catchall phrase” for the program he envisioned. Grant said all discussions were preliminary, and neither the ideas discussed with Stadler nor the draft memorandum of understanding were ever formally proposed.

He said the purpose of the October workshop was to determine if the school board wanted a charter school, and if so, to explore legalities and parameters.

Small also wrote to Brenda Kielty, public access ombudsman for the Maine attorney general’s office, to say that the subcommittee violated the Freedom of Access Act by meeting without notifying the public or keeping minutes. According to emails among the subcommittee members, requested by Small and then forwarded to the Bangor Daily News, the subcommittee scheduled at least one meeting in May and planned to meet on Aug. 23.

Tim Feeley, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Monday that staff is reviewing whether public notice is required in such cases.

Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said Thursday that the three committee members never actually met all together, and discussions were “one-to-one or in email.”

The full board was to consider final approval of the proposal at its November meeting, but Perzanoski said, “I think it’s dead in the water.”

“The board gave them permission to talk to [Stadler],” Perzanoski said, adding that the memorandum of agreement was drafted by Stadler and “was all discussion. Nothing was ever signed, nothing was ever agreed to … If there was something that was done incorrectly, let us know and we’ll fix it.”

“I don’t see how they can possibly proceed,” Small said. “Basically, they have so muddied the waters that I don’t think this process can ever be clean.”

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