May 23, 2019
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Charter school that hired House speaker as president faces state aid cut, loss of grant

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A major donor to the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a charter school in Fairfield, is raising concerns about the school’s viability because of a possible loss of $1.06 million in state funding, according to a letter obtained by the Bangor Daily News.

In the June 18 letter from the Harold Alfond Foundation to Good Will-Hinckley Board of Directors Chairman John P. Moore, the foundation’s chairman, Gregory W. Powell, raises “serious concern” about a cut to state funding to support boarding of students at the school.

Good Will-Hinckley is the parent organization of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, also known as MEANS.

“We want to express the serious concern of the Harold Alfond Foundation regarding the future financial viability of GWHMe, given the likely state funding loss, and by extension, its ability to achieve the goals underpinning the foundation’s September 10, 2014 grant agreement with Good Will to renovate and expand the Moody School,” reads the letter.

A call to the Harold Alfond Foundation on Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.

Sources close to the Good Will-Hinckley board, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of political reprisals, told the BDN the possible funding cut stems from the school’s plan to hire Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Eves of North Berwick as its president.

The $1.06 million in question is contained in a pool of educational funding in the General Fund called “Miscellaneous Costs,” over which the administration of Gov. Paul LePage has discretion through the Department of Education.

The funding — $530,000 in each of the two years in the coming biennium — is listed under a line titled “Center of Excellence for At-Risk Students/Choice and Opportunity Fund” and is meant to fund the charter school’s room and boarding costs.

Eves and members of the school’s board did meet Friday morning, June 19, for a regularly scheduled board meeting.

Asked about the meeting and funding situation on Friday, Eves would say only that “this is an ongoing matter for the board that would be inappropriate for me to comment on at this time. There was a board meeting this morning that I attended, but again, this is an ongoing matter for the board. I am still planning to pursue this employment.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Eves referred all queries regarding the Alfond letter to his attorney, David Webbert, a labor law attorney based in Augusta, who also had no comment, but said he might release a statement later.

A spokesman for Good Will-Hinckley confirmed Friday there was a regularly scheduled board meeting Friday morning, but would not comment on whether Eves was there or about the funding being in jeopardy.

“There was a regularly scheduled meeting of the Good Will-Hinckley Board of Directors today,” read a June 19 statement from the school to the BDN. “The board addressed a number of topics and remains focused on ensuring we are able to continue delivering on the school’s mission — serving and improving the lives of at-risk and non-traditional Maine students.”

On June 9, Eves announced he had signed a contract to become Good Will-Hinckley’s president effective July 1 for a salary of $120,000 a year. LePage challenged the board’s hiring of Eves with a scathing June 8 letter to members of the Good Will-Hinckley and MEANS boards.

In his letter, LePage said it is improper for the board to hire Eves because of Eves’ opposition to the passage of Maine’s charter school law, which took effect in 2011.

“On behalf of all who have worked so hard to ensure every Maine student has access to an education that is best suited to their individual needs, I must question your board’s decision to appoint a person so adamantly opposed to charter schools as president of the organization that runs one of Maine’s most prominent charter schools,” wrote LePage.

Eves has acknowledged to the BDN that he opposed the passage of the charter school law but that the primary motivation in his professional career has been advocating for and working with at-risk youth. Eves has held jobs working with at-risk kids in the past.

Good Will-Hinckley is a private organization and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences is a public one. The BDN has requested any documents sent or received by the MEANS board about this situation under the Freedom of Access Act.

The Bangor Daily News on June 15 also requested any administration correspondence and documents related to Good Will-Hinckley funding under FOAA. The newspaper has been notified that fulfilling the request could take until the end of July.

The Maine Academy of Natural Science, located on the former Good Will-Hinckley campus on Route 201 in Fairfield, has received a General Fund allocation from the state since it opened in 2011, originally as the state’s second magnet school. The academy has since become a charter school which receives per-pupil state funding.

LePage originally asked the Legislature to allocate $730,000 per year for the school’s residential program, according to an April 2011 story in the Bangor Daily News, but that number was pared to $330,000 in the school’s first year. The funding subsequently increased to $530,000 per year. That’s the figure that is included in the biennial state budget that currently awaits action by LePage.

The potential loss of state aid mentioned in the Alfond Foundation letter to the school’s board equals the amount included in the budget for the school’s residential program.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday the governor’s chief concern is the school and the administration, through the Department of Education, has discretion over the money for Good Will-Hinckley .

“The number one priority for the governor is that the students are put first,” said Bennett. “The fact that Speaker Eves votes and has explicitly expressed his concern with charter schools is concerning to the governor. How do you support kids within a charter school if you are against the very school that they’re in?”

The Harold Alfond Foundation, which has poured millions of dollars into charity work over the years, is in line to grant Good Will-Hinckley up to $5.5 million, $2.75 million of which “is contingent on [Good Will-Hinckley] achieving measurable performance goals, including reaching enrollment of 210 by the 2019-2020 year,” reads the June 18 letter.

Benchmarks previously set by the foundation included that MEANS would have at least 110 students and reach financial break-even status in the 2015-16 fiscal year; that annual state funding for residential programming would continue through the 2016-17 fiscal year; and that the organization would renovate the Moody School — a building on the Route 201 campus — to accommodate 210 students and generate net income of nearly $460,000 by 2019-20.

“We would hope that the board of both Good Will and MEANS will be giving full consideration to the new challenges presented by the likely state funding loss,” concludes the letter.

Watch bangordailynews.com for updates.

 



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