April 8, 2013

Vote allows Portland charter school to proceed

Parents and prospective Baxter Academy students are thrilled, but several hurdles still remain.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA —  Portland's first charter school won approval Monday to move forward with its plan to open this fall, in a unanimous vote by the Maine Charter School Commission.

"I am so excited," said Alec Gagne, 13, of Westbrook, who plans to attend the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science. "I'm bouncing off the walls."

Next, however, may be a state investigation of the application process for Baxter Academy and other charter schools.

Baxter Academy received initial approval from the Charter School Commission in November, before the school fired its founder and executive director, alleging financial mismanagement.

Monday's vote allows school officials and a subcommittee of the commission to work out the details of the charter school contract. That contract will require a final vote by the commission, likely in May.

Monday's vote was Baxter Academy's biggest practical hurdle to a fall opening. As the final votes in the 6-0 decision were read, cheers broke out in the basement room of the State House, where a dozen students and parents awaited the outcome.

"I'm going to Baxter Academy in the fall!" shouted Brianna Keliehor, 13, of Gorham, who is now home schooled.

Commission member Richard Barnes noted that he was voting for Baxter Academy despite voting against it in the past.

"I think there are a whole lot of things that have totally turned around in this proposal," he said, but school officials must make certain changes before he will vote for final approval.

He called for the board to hire a new executive director and change the school's bylaws to bar anyone with a financial interest in the school from serving on the board of directors. School officials told the commission that they plan to address its concerns.

The school's financial stability has been under scrutiny since the commission began reviewing its application nearly a year ago. In March, the board of directors fired John Jaques, the school's founder and executive director.

Jaques initially refused to relinquish control of the school's website and other password-protected online assets. The school sued Jaques to get him to turn over the material. He complied but then countersued, claiming defamation, and is seeking punitive damages.

Jaques said the board fired him because a donor insisted on it. The donor, Dan Amory, an attorney who is the father of a Baxter Academy advisory board member, later confirmed that he wouldn't have made the $250,000 donation if Jaques had remained as executive director.

The board made the donation public in the same news release that announced a search for a new executive director. Board members have denied that the donation was tied to Jaques' firing, citing instead a "pattern of financial mismanagement."

In late March, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan asked the Maine Attorney General's Office to investigate the allegations of financial mismanagement and determine whether the Charter School Commission properly reviewed the school's finances. Attorney General Janet Mills declined, saying she lacks the authority.

At that point, Democratic legislative leaders asked the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee to initiate a formal review of Baxter Academy's charter application and its financial viability.

Emily Cain, D-Orono, the Government Oversight Committee's Senate chair, said the committee will take up the issue Friday. Such a review would be done by the Legislature's investigative agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

"The questions that were raised about the (charter school) application process itself remain, regardless of the outcome of today's vote," Cain said Monday.

(Continued on page 2)

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