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Portland charter school 'taking shape,' set to open on schedule

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Portland charter school 'taking shape,' set to open on schedule

PORTLAND — The city's first charter school is steadily renovating its building near Commercial Street and is on track to open this fall, school officials said this week.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science at 54 York St. still has a long way to go before it will be ready for students. But Kelli Pryor, chairwoman of the board of directors, said progress has been steady.

"It's really taking shape," Pryor said Monday, as she and and Vice Chairwoman Allison Crean Davis walked through the partially complete school. Ventilation and building supplies filled a front room, while construction workers touched up wall board.

The entrance area is now the most finished area, with orange walls and four contrasting, bright green columns.

The building, which previously hosted businesses including a bar and an Irish social club, was the genesis for the Great Fire of 1866 that burned down much of the Old Port and Munjoy Hill. It has had several additions and now has been redesigned to accommodate classrooms, labs and offices, although a substantial amount of work remains.

"It's daunting in a good way, but there's so much to do," Davis said.

The school, which will have only ninth and 10th grades in its first year, has now filled all of its 10 regular teaching positions and will likely contract out for a language teacher, Davis said.

The teachers hail from a range of states on both the east and west coasts. One comes from as far away as San Diego, from the charter school High Tech High. Head of School Michele LaForge transferred from nearby Freeport High School.

Baxter has also attracted 122 students from 48 towns and 35 regional school units across Maine, Executive Director Carl Stasio said. Some are from as far away as Leeds; only eight students are Portland residents.

"There are still some outstanding applications," Davis said. "We're stable at 122. We could reach 130, but we have no nerves about dropping below."

Baxter has to have a minimum enrollment of 117 students, and is capped at 143. 

Directors had originally expected to have enrollment of about 150 students, but dropped the projection to 130, which means about $180,000 less in revenue.

The school is required to provide transportation for students within a 25-mile catchment area, which will be one of the school's most significant expenses, Davis said.

"Logistically, it's an exceptional challenge," she said.

Davis said some families who live far away from the school have said they plan to move to Portland to reduce the commute time.

Another remaining piece for the school is fundraising. Davis said the directors "have a ways to go" to raise another $100,000 by Aug. 31 to fulfill a requirement to match their largest donation. A fundraiser is planned for July 25 at DeLorme, the mapping and technology company in Yarmouth.

Davis said the matching-donor funding is not essential to this year's operations, but part of the larger, long-term vision for the school.

Directors also plan to host the annual luncheon of the conservative think-tank Maine Heritage Policy Center on July 31, where they plan to network and hopefully raise money for the school, Davis said.

Baxter, like all charter schools in Maine, also funnels money away from traditional public schools, which must transfer about $9,000 per pupil for each student who attends a charter school.

And while the funding dynamic could have changed after the Legislature passed a bill in June to shift funding from local districts to the state, on Monday Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the legislation, along with 20 other bills.

"This bill is another attempt to destroy public schools in Maine by a thousand cuts," the governor said in his veto letter.

The bill passed mostly along party lines, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposing.

Maine was the 41st state to allow charter schools after LePage signed them into law in June 2011.

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