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UPDATE: Brunswick charter school proposal all but dead

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UPDATE: Brunswick charter school proposal all but dead

BRUNSWICK — School Board discussion about starting a charter school has probably come to a halt after the idea received a cool reception in October and a warning from the state that the process may have violated the law.

Board Chairman Jim Grant on Wednesday said discussions about a possible charter school authorized by the school system will likely not continue.

"There's nothing before the board and there's not going to be anything going before the board," he said. "The board wasn't interested."

Entrepreneur John Stadler, who approached the board with the idea of an international charter school, also said he's giving up on discussions.

"I haven't heard anything official, but unofficially the feedback was not encouraging," he said. "I think the School Board doesn't really have any appetite for conflict and appetite for more work. ... I don't think I'm going to stick with it anymore."

On Monday, a state education official said the board's ad hoc charter school committee did not abide by state law when it negotiated the proposed charter school with Stadler, and must "back the process up" and start again.

Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs for the Maine Department of Education, said she would contact Grant to discuss how the board could move forward, because the process is governed by state law.

"I think maybe they weren't thinking about that when they were looking at different options for partnership," Friedman said. "I will be contacting the school board chair to say ... 'If you want to become an authorizer of charter schools, the process needs to be very different and here is how it needs to go.'"

As of Wednesday, Grant said he had yet to hear from Friedman, but added that the charter school idea never reached the stage of a formal proposal.

Instead, he said the purpose of meeting with Stadler was to give the board an idea of what it would need to do if it wanted to begin working on a proposal.

"We were toying with the idea," Grant said. "The board never said 'let's make a charter school and go on that route.'"

The School Board would be the first local board in Maine to authorize a charter school under the state charter school law passed in 2011. The Maine Charter School Commission oversees charter schools that operate independently of school districts.

In September, Grant reported to the full School Board on two meetings with Stadler, whose family owns Tao Yuan restaurant in Brunswick and who in April proposed collaborating with the School Department to create Brunswick Landing International School.

Stadler, who in 1995 founded a charter school in Massachusetts, said the Stadler Foundation would pay $125,000 toward start-up costs for the Brunswick charter school, which would be available to all students, primarily funded through tuition from international students, and which would open as early as September 2014.

According to School Board meeting minutes, Grant said in September that "plans are being made to study and formulate what the school would look like, generate a program, study student interest, decide if there should be a donation/gift of funds to explore the feasibility, and investigate the need to hire a person to assist the superintendent to handle the extra workload."

Discussion at an Oct. 23 School Board workshop prompted former board member Michelle Small to contact the MDOE and Maine attorney general's office last week, charging that the subcommittee violated the charter school law by entering into discussions with Stadler before issuing a Request for Proposals and considering all applicants. Small also contended that school officials violated Maine's Freedom of Access Act by meeting at least once without giving public notice or keeping minutes of the meeting.

She said a draft Memorandum of Understanding circulated to board members would also violate the charter school law because it outlines a "dollar for dollar" revenue-sharing agreement through which the charter school would purchase services from the Brunswick schools to compensate for the amount of state reimbursement to education lost by Brunswick students who would attend the charter.

On Monday, Friedman said a number of aspects of the proposal, including the problems identified by Small, raised concerns.

Friedman said she didn't realize the proposal "had gone this far to being solidified" because she hadn't heard anything since a September phone call from subcommittee member Christopher McCarthy. When she did not hear back from Brunswick officials, Friedman "assumed they had decided not to go forward."

Friedman said the proposed financial arrangement between Brunswick and the charter school "seems somewhat inappropriate (because) school boards in some ways have to have sort of an arms-length relationship, to some extent – the school board has to hold the charter-founder accountable."

While it would be feasible, and even recommended, that a charter school purchase services from a local school, the statute clearly states that the school may not be required to purchase them as a condition of charter approval.

"I do think Brunswick and Mr. Stadler are trying to work out something that is mutually beneficial, but it's a little too close,'" she said.

Friedman said that when Stadler last contacted the MDOE in 2012 to say he was considering a school for international students and students from Maine, state officials clarified for him that he could not reserve spots in such a school for international students.

"I think it's great that school boards are thinking about, 'How can charter schools be beneficial to us and our students,' but because it's the first time this is being done, they need to be clear on what they can and cannot do, and what benefit it does and doesn't provide to the district and the area," she said.

Small also wrote to Brenda Kielty, public access ombudsman for the Maine attorney general's office, to say that the subcommittee violated Maine's Freedom of Access Act by meeting without notifying the public or keeping minutes. According to emails among the subcommittee members, requested by Small and then forwarded to the Bangor Daily News, the subcommittee scheduled at least one meeting in May and planned to meet on Aug. 23.

Tim Feeley, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said Monday that staff is reviewing whether public notice is required in such cases.

Grant said because of difficulty in scheduling the August meeting in the first place, he forgot to notify the public.

"I dropped the ball," he said.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said on Oct. 13 that the three committee members never actually met all together, and discussions were "one-to-one or in email."

The full board was to consider final approval of the proposal at its Nov. 13 meeting, but Perzanoski said, "I think it's dead in the water."

"The board gave them permission to talk to (Stadler,)" Perzanoski said, adding that the Memorandum of Agreement was drafted by Stadler and "was all discussion. Nothing was ever signed, nothing was ever agreed to. ... If there was something that was done incorrectly, let us know and we'll fix it."

Small said she doesn't see how the School Board can proceed.

"Basically," she said, "they have so muddied the waters that I don't think this process can ever be clean."

Beth Brogan of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report. Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.