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Legislators, Cape Elizabeth elected officials wary of charter schools

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Legislators, Cape Elizabeth elected officials wary of charter schools

CAPE ELIZABETH — Town Councilors and School Board members met with newly elected legislators Wednesday morning to discuss objectives and goals for the upcoming legislative session.

The discussion with Rep. Kim Monaghan-Derrig, D-Cape Elizabeth, Rep.-elect Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, and Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, ranged from charter schools and technology to gridlock in the Legislature.

One of the most substantive discussions by town officials was how the state's approved charter schools, particularly Portland's Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, might affect the town if Cape Elizabeth students migrate to the school when it opens next fall.

Monaghan-Derrig, of House District 121, said although she didn't have any "scoops" on what was going to happen with the for-profit schools, she offered predictions.

"I think we may see some reform when it comes to charter schools, but I don't see them adding any more until they evaluate the progress of the ones they've already approved," she said.

Baxter will be Maine's third charter school. Cornville Regional Charter School in Cornville and The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield both opened in October.

Millett, who represents Senate District 11, said there should be a separate appropriation for charter schools to prevent money for public schools from funding charter schools.

Students leaving the Cape Elizabeth school system to go to charter schools could draw money away from the town's school budget, which is already funded more than 90 percent by the municipality.

In Cape Elizabeth, the state pays for only 8.6 percent of the school budget, due to the town's high property values, which total more than $1.5 billion, Town Manager Mike McGovern said. In other areas of the state, where property values are lower, the state funding can make up more than 80 percent of their school budget.

In 2004, voters approved a ballot measure requiring the Legislature to fund public education at an average of 55 percent. Despite increasing funding by hundreds of millions of dollars, the Legislature has never reached that level of funding.

School Board member John Christie added his concern that charter schools are working against part of the school consolidation effort, which was to reduce administrative costs, he said.

"If the goal of consolidation was to reduce administrative overhead and now we have charter schools recreating all those roles, doing the exact opposite of what the consolidation effort was trying to reduce," he said. "It's worth stating that we need to be consistent with what we're doing with schools. This charter school system seems to be doing the opposite."

The group also talked about funding for the Maine Learning and Technology Initiative, which began in 2002, and was intended to give students in grades 7-12 personal access to Apple computers and help them develop technological skills. In 2010, 100 percent of middle schools and 55 percent of high schools in Maine had laptops for students and teachers. 

Superintendent of Schools Meredith Nadeau said the funding is vital for students and teachers, not only for the technology, but for the professional development.

"I think it would be a sea change to remove that funding," she said.

All students at Cape Elizabeth High School are issued an iPad, but the funding comes from the private Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation.

School Board Chairwoman Mary Townsend noted that although the iPads provide good opportunities for students, she said many prefer laptop computers because they are more powerful.

Although Hamann, who represents House District 123, left the meeting early, Millett and Monaghan-Derrig said they hope legislators will be able to work together in the upcoming session.

Millett said she is encouraged by some of the discussions she has had with other legislators about moving beyond the partisan politics.

"There's a sense not to make out everything that's been done as bad," she said. "There needs to be forward movement."

Monaghan-Derrig agreed.

"We can't have gridlock," she said. "We should be able to work together, like it was done before."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.