April 2, 2013

Oversight panel delays review of Portland charter school

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The Legislature's Government Oversight Committee delayed a decision Tuesday on a review of an embattled Portland charter school until after state regulators consider the school's license application next week.

But the committee directed its watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, to look at potential focuses for a review.

Beth Ashcroft, OPEGA's director, said any investigation would likely be broad, focusing not just on the proposed Baxter Academy for Science and Technology but also on standards and processes by which charter schools are approved in Maine.

The oversight committee meeting was prompted by a March 27 letter from Education Committee leaders asking for a review of the process that saw Baxter Academy receive conditional approval from the Maine Charter School Commission.

The commission is set to approve or deny Baxter Academy's charter school application on Monday, so the oversight committee will take up the request again at its April 12 meeting.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the chairs of the Education Committee, asked the committee to charge OPEGA with reviewing the process and standards by which the charter commission reviewed and granted Baxter's approval; the commission's role in providing advice to Baxter during the process; and Baxter's financial viability.

After Tuesday's meeting, Ashcroft said a broader look at the first two points — for Baxter and forthcoming charter schools — could be fruitful for OPEGA to review.

"Are those clear enough?" she asked. "Are there areas when we get into potential problems or issues?"

But she said probing Baxter's financial viability would duplicate the charter commission's work.

"That's not our role, to say something is not financially viable, especially at this juncture," she said.

Jana Lapoint, chair of the charter commission, said she applauded the committee's decision, especially since it doesn't appear to focus completely on Baxter Academy.

"If they could find anything that would make our processes smoother, I'm all for it," she said.

Alison Crean Davis, vice chairwoman of Baxter Academy's board of directors, downplayed the panel's tabling decision, saying, "It wasn't really anything I was concerning myself with."

Baxter received conditional approval from the commission in July. Much has changed since then.

Amid allegations of financial mismanagement, John Jaques, the school's founder, was fired from his executive director post by Baxter's board of directors last month.

For a time, Jaques didn't relinquish control of the school's website and Facebook page. The board sued him, prompting Jaques to file a countersuit.

Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, a member of the education and oversight committees, said the events raise questions about whether the school can proceed.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz said OPEGA generally launches an investigation when evidence suggests that government processes aren't working, or that wrongdoing may have taken place. OPEGA's probe of the Maine Turnpike Authority, for example, led to the conviction of the agency's executive director, Paul Violette, on theft charges last year.

"Where is that probable cause here? I don't see it," Katz said.

Baxter Academy's regulatory process has been politically charged since Jaques' resignation. In a statement after Tuesday's meeting, Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the oversight committee's Senate chair, said the committee must "take the politics out of it."

After Jaques' firing, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a former Democratic legislator and frequent charter school critic, asked Maine Attorney General Janet Mills to review the school's finances and suspend negotiations with the commission. She declined.

Gov. Paul LePage criticized Brennan, writing in a letter to the mayor that his request to Mills was "the latest salvo in your campaign against" Baxter Academy and charter schools.

After the Education Committee's letter requesting an OPEGA investigation, Lapoint, the charter commission chairwoman, said the committee's chairs, Millett and MacDonald, were "fishing for something because they don't want charter schools."

In a March 30 letter to the Government Oversight Committee, Lapoint said the type of review Education Committee leaders asked for would "encompass the Charter School Commission's process, standards activities" relating to Baxter Academy.

In that letter, the commission said it's asked for a host of documents, especially surrounding Baxter's finances, after Jaques' firing. A committee list said that includes financial documents, board composition, an organizational plan, contracts for services including food, and more.

"So far, it looks to this one observer like the commission's doing a good job," Katz said. "I'm going to assume that the commission is going to do its job and do it well."

Michael Shepherd -- 621-5632

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