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Maine Charter School Commission Probes Baxter Academy Turmoil
03/25/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Board members of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science faced tough questions today at a hearing before the Maine State Charter School Commission. As Jay Field reports, the school's board told skeptical commissioners that Baxter's enrollment projections, finances, governing structure and academic plans are solid - despite all the turmoil in the wake of the firing of the school's founder.

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It isn't just Baxter that has a lot at stake. The work of Maine's Charter School Commission has been closely scrutinized since it began reviewing applications almost a year ago. Gov. Paul LePage, a strong supporter of charters, called for commission members to be fired in January, when they wouldn't fast track approval of virtual schools.

The commission defended it's deliberative approach, a position that for some observers looks prescient in the wake of all the recent turmoil at Baxter. Jana LaPoint, chair of the commission, called Monday's hearing to order.

"The reason for the meeting is that, recently, members of the Maine Charter School Commission were made aware of substantital changes in the governance, leadership, and finances of the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science," she said.

Baxter has won intital go-ahead from the state, but still needs to finalize its charter contract if it's to open in September. Earlier this month, the Baxter's board fired John Jaques, the charter school's founder, over allegations of financial mismanagement. The move has prompted a flurry of lawsuits, a call for an investigation by Maine's Attorney General and questions about the school's future.

Current members of Baxter's board told the commission that the upheaval hasn't knocked the school off-track. Kelli Pryor is board chair. "We feel that as an organization, Baxter is stronger than it ever has been," she said. "And today, we will answer any questions about how we are moving forward."

Charter School Commission members had plenty of them. After Jaques was fired, they sent a long list to the Baxter board, ahead of Monday's hearing. Commission member William Shuttleworth wondered about enrollment.

"Since this recent ruckus and change in potential leadership, what has been the feedback that you have from the stability of the enrollment that you orginally had?" he asked.

"I think the most telling thing is the fact that we've communicated with the vast majority of these 161 students on three occasions," said attorney and Baxter board member Leonard Cole. Cole says only five students want to withdraw their letters of intent to attend the school. "And of those five, none of them cited the recent changes," he said.

Cole defended the board's integrity, calling all news stories in the wake of Jaques firing "dirty laundry." Last year, concerns about Baxter's finances led two commission members to vote against approving the school. Those concerns resurfaced after the recent upheaval and were also on the list of questions sent to Baxter's leaders.

Commission Chair Jana LaPoint asked about cash on hand. "At the moment, you have $6,400 in the bank. And you said something about you have $90,000 somewhere else. If it's not in the bank, where is the money?"

"During the year, we collected $91,000 in money. We spent $96,000. So that money came in and went out for various expenses, related for start-ups," said Peter Montano, the school's treasurer.

Montano says the school hopes to raise $350,000 in donations in the coming months. It already has $25,000 in hand and pledges for an additional $225,000. "And obviously, these pledges are contingent up on us being approved by the commission and signing our charter."

Ousted Baxter head John Jaques sat in the back of the room observing the hearing. He has alleged that a donor promised to give the school $250,000 if he were removed.

In a written statement late this afternoon, Jaques says he would like to see the documents put before the commission made public. "The future of charter schools in Maine depends on transparency," he said.

Charter commissioners will now review testimony and meet again on April 8 to decide whether to formally approve Baxter's charter.


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