Harpswell charter school faces funding, legislative hurdles
HARPSWELL — Before Harpswell Coastal Academy opens to 60 students this fall, the charter school has many hurdles to clear.
But despite having to raise $135,000, arrange transportation for students, hiring staff and signing a building lease before September, the head of HCA said there's no doubt HCA will clear them in time.
"We will absolutely get it all done," John D'Anieri said on Wednesday. "This is what start-up schools do."
At the same time, HCA and other public charter schools have the additional challenge of dealing with negative public perception and legislation that could have a considerable impact on a major funding source: the state's Essential Programs and Services formula.
D'Anieri said several bills in the Legislature could effectively "eliminate charter schools."
"The funding (formulas proposed by some of the bills are) not only absurdly low," D'Anieri said, "but would completely eliminate the possibility of these being public schools. In fact, they would more likely resemble private schools," because they would have to rely on more private funding.
In a recent blog post on HCA's website, D'Anieri said the school has made an effort to avoid the political arena until now, and criticized the LePage administration for hurting the perception of charter schools.
"While every 'bricks and mortar' charter school in Maine must be run by an independent 501(c)3 Board of Directors, the LePage administration has been focused on using the charter law to enable for-profit out-of-state operators to operate 'virtual charters,'" D'Anieri wrote. "Many Mainers and many school reform experts are understandably alarmed."
"Those options are not part of what we consider healthy public school policy," D'Anieri later explained. "... I'm not in this to pick a political fight with anyone. The reason why I feel I have to criticize the LePage administration is when the more important day-to-day issues get lost in what is a partisan political battle."
When asked about the recent dispute surrounding Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, another charter school scheduled to open this fall, D'Anieri said people should not confuse Baxter and HCA. He highlighted his experience with helping start up Casco Bay High School in Portland and Poland Regional High School.
"We understand that the controversy around Baxter has caused people to question every charter school or the whole charter school concept," D'Anieri said. "However, HCA's team is led by experienced school start-up people who have done this before. Our application was approved because it was seen as solid."
D'Anieri attended the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs' public hearing for the bills on Monday, and he said he was encouraged by the committee's response. He said committee members appeared to be interested in finding a solution that would have a less negative impact on charter schools.
"I'm working on finding some language from other states that might enable a buffer account or way that the impact on a school district in the first one to four years can be offset by some sort of supplemental funding," D'Anieri said.
According to preliminary enrollment figures for HCA, most students will come from Brunswick and School Administrative District 75, which means those districts will experience the largest losses in their EPS funding.
There are currently 15 Brunswick students and 26 SAD 75 students who have filed letters of intent for fall enrollment at HCA. According to calculations by D'Anieri, this would reduce Brunswick's school revenue by about $124,000 and SAD 75's by $215,000.
Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said "we respect the charter schools and what they're trying to do, to provide a different type of education experience for students and families. We just disagree with the way the state has decided to finance them."
Perzanoski said his main concerns with HCA is how the school will provide transportation to students in Brunswick and SAD 75, which is required by law, and provide enough resources for special education students.
D'Anieri said HCA is negotiating for bus transportation.
For the special education piece, D'Anieri said, "HCA is held to and will meet the same expectations and needs of special needs students as any other students in the state of Maine. It's challenging, but it's what we need to do and so we're going to do it. "
D'Anieri said HCA is pursuing a lease with the town for the former West Harpswell School building. Since the Harpswell Town Meeting in March authorized the Board of Selectmen to issue a three-year lease, he said, a deal is on the table.
Ronnie Weston, a consultant with Bull Moose Group, is helping HCA with its fundraising campaign and said most of the school's start-up costs will be raised over the next 60 days. She said HCA has already raised $70,000 and is hoping to raise an additional $65,000.
Weston said all of the money raised so far has been for facilities, furniture and other costs associated with starting up the school. She said the second half of HCA's fundraising goal will be for staff salaries and consulting fees.
The campaign will formally continue into the summer to have access to people who live in Harpswell on a part-time basis.
"We're confident that money will be raised between the leadership and what I've been able to do in the Mid-Coast area in the past," Weston said.