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Renovations, fundraising, hiring remain for Portland charter school

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Renovations, fundraising, hiring remain for Portland charter school

PORTLAND — After administrative turmoil and a slimming down of its original plans, the city's first charter school received final approval from the Maine Charter School Commission on May 7.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, which is slated to open this fall at 54 York St., reduced its enrollment projections, leading to reductions in staff and salaries in its final proposal.

The reduced enrollment will mean less revenue for the school, which will force organizers to employ creative fundraising options, according to Allison Crean Davis, vice chairwoman of the school's board of directors.

Crean Davis said the board is pursuing new fundraising avenues, but had not developed any new concrete plans as of its meeting last Friday.

"Fundraising efforts will continue to be important," Crean Davis said. "We need to do our due diligence on some things. ... It's very much formative right now."

The school dropped its expected enrollment from about 150 students to about 130 students, she said, which means a reduction of about $180,000 in projected revenue. Charter schools receive public money, pulling about $9,000 per pupil from the students' home districts.

The latest number of students planning to attend the school is 109. Baxter's enrollment is restricted to a maximum of 143 students and a minimum of 117. The actual amount of lost revenue caused by lower enrollment will not be known until Baxter receives confirmation from students about their attendance.

Crean Davis said "almost every day" the school receives new student applications. There are about 15-20 enrollment packets out, she said, with varying deadlines based on a two-week required response time.

The school is expected to have 10 teachers this fall, down from 12 in earlier plans, which includes a special education teacher. The charter school will also have two education technicians.

While the school has yet to formally sign any contracts with teachers, Crean Davis said the Charter School Commission's approval allows the board to start moving forward with hiring. She said there are informal commitments from about 80 percent of the people who have received job offers.

One of the new hires is Executive Director Carl Stasio, former headmaster at Thorton Academy in Saco. In the latest plan, his position is reduced to half time.

In March, the board ousted former Executive Director John Jaques, who claimed he was unethically fired. 

Jaques and the board eventually reached an amicable agreement, but only after Baxter was put under intense scrutiny, with the threat of lawsuits and calls for the school to be investigated.

It also halted the commission's contract talks with Baxter, and precipitated the new, scaled-back operating plan.

But the commission's approval now puts that history behind the school.

Baxter will be one of five charter schools in the state. Two others were recently approved and are scheduled to open in September: Fiddlehead School of the Arts in Gray and Harpswell Coastal Academy in Harpswell.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of local school districts. Enrollment in any charter school is open to all Maine students, although each school must define a "catchment" area from which it will draw a majority of its students. Students in that area must also be offered school-provided transportation – in Baxter's case, within a 25-mile radius of Portland.

Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools after passage of a law by the 125th Legislature. The debate over charter schools has been divisive, largely because charter schools siphon money away from traditional public schools, which must transfer funds for each student who attends a charter school.

The Legislature is considering bills that would change the funding structure, including one that draws money from the state, instead of local public school districts.

One of the final pieces remaining for Baxter is renovation of its York Street building, which began about two weeks ago and is expected to continue through late August, Crean Davis said.

"From what I hear, there's rubble everywhere," she said. "But that's a good sign. It's moving along, and moving aggressively at that."

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