March 23, 2013

Baxter charter school leaders face key meeting with commissioners

Baxter Academy's board will be asked for updates on school curriculum, staffing and finances.

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

After a tumultuous two weeks that included the firing of the founder of Portland's first charter school, dueling lawsuits and calls by Portland's mayor for a state investigation, the new leaders of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science are scheduled to meet Monday with the Maine Charter School Commission to discuss the state of the school.

"We are moving forward," board Vice Chairwoman Allison Crean Davis said Friday, adding that the changes have actually been good for the school. "A month ago, we had no funds, and management was not going to be able to get us to Sept. 3."

In recent weeks, the nascent school has been upended by the firing and subsequent lawsuits. The school sued founder John Jaques to obtain school materials; he returned them, but also countersued for defamation and is seeking punitive damages. He also claims intellectual property rights to the materials used to create Baxter Academy.

As it stands, Baxter Academy has been approved by the commission. But officials have not completed the application process and still need further approval from the commission before the school can open this fall.

A key hurdle is making sure there are enough students. The school received about 160 letters of interest, but that was before the upheaval. They need at least 140 students to sign another letter, a letter of commitment, to be able to open. Those letters have not yet been sent out to interested students.

One parent said there was still plenty of support, noting that more than 100 people turned out for a recent weekend meeting.

"Parents that just want this school to happen are not that interested in the controversy," said Ruth Dean, leader of a parents' group.

Commissioners told the board that they plan to ask Monday for updates on curriculum, staffing and finances. In a letter, commissioners also raise questions directly related to the recent controversy, including the potential impact of any pending litigation.

"How are the litigation costs to be paid? If the intellectual property is deemed not to belong to the school, how would this affect the ability to go forward as a school? If the litigation was to go for a long period of time, how would that affect the school?" the commission members asked in the letter.

"The commission needs further assurances that the present board has the capacity necessary to enter a contract and open a school in September 2013."

On Friday, the board announced a new school chief, Freeport High School math team leader Michele LaForge.

But Friday also brought the latest controversy for Baxter: Portland Mayor Michael Brennan is asking the Maine Attorney General's Office to investigate the allegations of financial mismanagement at the school, and determine whether the charter school commission properly reviewed the school's finances.

He wants the state to freeze all contract negotiations with the school, prospective families to be notified of a review, and a process for challenging a commission decision to award a charter to be established.

Crean Davis said the board would wait to see how the Attorney General's Office responds to the mayor's request.

Dean said she hoped the commission would allow Baxter to go forward Monday.

"It would just be awful if they said no," Dean said. "There are so many families waiting. Even though it's new and it's unproven and they don't really know what's going to happen, they still want to go because typical education isn't working for them.

"Baxter has become bigger than the board or John Jaques," Dean said.

LaForge said she wasn't deterred by all the upheaval.

"To me it's just a school. As a teacher leader, the trajectory for me was to be a principal or leading (a school)," she said.

LaForge has a double bachelor's degree in math and in Russian from the University of New Hampshire and a master's degree in Slavic languages and literature from Northwestern University. She worked for an academic book publisher before teaching.

Charter schools are allowed in Maine under a state law passed in 2011. The law caps the number at 10 schools in 10 years. Two have opened already.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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