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March 25, 2013

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

(FILE) John Jaques, founder of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, has been removed as executive director of the fledgling charter school by the school's board of directors. Photographed on Thursday, March 7, 2013.

Charter panel questions Baxter board in aftermath of firing

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

AUGUSTA — About a dozen parents and children urged the state Charter School Commission to allow Portland's first charter school to open this fall, despite the firing of founder John Jaques two weeks ago amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

Members of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science board of directors appeared before the commission Monday to answer questions about the school's status in the wake of the upheaval.

They were supported by several prospective parents who said they support the change in management.

"In spite of the difficulty and the naysayers, we are more committed than ever to the school," said Rachel Rodriguez of Cumberland, whose daughter hopes to attend.

After he was fired, Jaques, then the school's executive director, 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. He also claims intellectual property rights to the materials used to create Baxter Academy.

On Friday, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan asked the Maine Attorney General's Office to investigate the financial mismanagement allegations and determine whether the Charter School Commission properly reviewed the school's finances. He also wants the state to freeze all contract negotiations with the school.

On Monday, Baxter's board told commission members they had secured new funding, hired a head of school, signed a lease on their space and were reorganizing the school's administration, including bringing on new board members.

"We feel Baxter is stronger than it ever has been," Chairwoman Kelli Pryor said. The school plans to open with ninth and 10th graders and add grades 11 and 12 over the next two years.

Jaques was in the audience and gave a brief statement afterward.

"This is clearly a new group moving forward with a new plan," he said. He submitted written testimony to the commission, but the text was not immediately available.

Baxter Academy currently has tentative approval from the commission to open in the fall but needs further approvals.

Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said no decision would be made at Monday's meeting. The commission plans to announce whether it will grant its next approval for Baxter at its regularly scheduled meeting April 8 in Augusta. Five of the seven commissioners must vote in the affirmative for Baxter to move forward.

The commission did not ask the board to explain why Jaques was fired. Lapoint said at the beginning of the meeting that no one was allowed to discuss the pending lawsuits.

The commissioners sounded skeptical at times, mostly about financial details, but enthusiastic about the proposed curriculum.

The school would emphasize engineering and science. Study of a Shakespearean play might lead to an engineering analysis of catapaults, for example. Then students might build one.

Fridays would be set aside for students to work on projects, work in the community, do library research or use facilities at the University of Southern Maine.

Lapoint said Monday's presentation was the first to give detailed descriptions of classes and how students would learn and reach academic benchmarks set by the state.

"Before, they just sort of brushed through (the academic portion)," Lapoint said after the meeting. "Today they showed a lot more knowledge and I was excited as a teacher."

Among the details Baxter officials gave were:

  • Financial information. A donor has pledged $250,000, which will be matched with $100,000 in school funds. The school has already raised and spent about $70,000 of the matching amount, board member Peter Montano said, and has plans to raise another $70,000 from an annual event.

    He said the school has $6,500 in the bank, with a line of credit awaiting backing from the Finance Authority of Maine.

  • Student interest. Board members said they have 156 letters of interest, and another dozen students on a waiting list. The school needs 140 students to open and plans to notify students this week they have two weeks to sign letters of commitment.
     
  • Where prospective students live. The school is not allowed to draw off more than 10 percent of any public school’s existing class. Board member Len Cole said 21 students were from Portland, 11 from South Portland, nine each from Freeport and Westbrook, eight each from Lewiston-Auburn and Gorham, and five or fewer students from each of the other districts.

School districts are concerned about how many students might leave for Baxter, since the state subsidy will follow them. Portland has estimated that Baxter will cost the school district $500,000 but the figure was chosen before the actual number of students became known.

Nine prospective students were in the audience Monday, including Alec Gagne of Westbrook, who said he didn't feel challenged at his school.

"I want to take my learning as far as I can," Gagne said. "I need Baxter Academy to open."

Several parents said they did not want the controversy over Jaques' firing to derail the entire school.

"The change in management has been difficult, but we are still committed to the school," said Kelli Keliehor, who home-schools her 13-year-old daughter, Brianna.

A smaller number of speakers spoke against approving it.

Carl Hesslebart said he'd been a member of the school's original advisory board, but was removed when the board of directors replaced the entire advisory board without notification.

"I'm a parent of an applicant to the school. We have believed in Baxter, we still believe in the need for Baxter. But right now, because of everything that has happened, we don't believe this is the school we were supporting," Hesselbart said. "What happened to us?"

While the board was not asked to explain why Jaques was fired, Pryor said in her closing remarks that members "never would have wished" for the controversy.

"We did what we felt we had to do for the kids," she said, "And we ask you to keep them in mind as you go forward."

One speaker asked the commission to end the "emotional rollercoaster ride."

"When you finally give Baxter its charter, it's over," said Thomas Beretich. "Politicians need to lay down their arms."

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners told the Baxter board to provide the identities of all donors, an up-to-date three-year budget, the latest enrollment figures and details on how they will feed and transport students.

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.

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

ngallagher@mainetoday.com

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
ngallagher@mainetoday.com





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