Portland charter school fans, foes clash on 'dirty laundry'

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AUGUSTA — Leaders of a proposed Portland charter school on Monday dismissed continued accusations of corruption and unethical behavior as “dirty laundry” and “noise.”

They said they are focusing on the needs of potential students.

The Maine Charter School Commission applied fresh scrutiny to the proposed Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in a four-hour meeting Monday as controversy continued to simmer over the recent removal of the school’s founder.

The commission is scheduled to decide on April 8 whether to grant the academy a charter to open next September.

Members of the public pulled commission members in both ways Monday.

Supporters of original Executive Director John Jaques, who was dismissed in a surprise move earlier this month, harshly criticized new academy leaders, while parents of prospective students said the specialized school is badly needed in the greater Portland area and must be allowed to open.

Baxter Academy representatives on Monday tried to reassure commission members that the school is well-positioned to succeed financially and academically under new leadership. Board members dismissed as inconsequential continued controversy around the removal of Jaques and a legal battle with the founder over ownership of the school’s website and other intellectual property.

“It’s dirty laundry however you look at it,” Leonard Cole, an attorney on the academy board of directors, told the commission. “It distracts from what we’re trying to do, which I hope has been clear today and which is to build a great school. Anything other than that is a distraction. Other than the press, I don’t see any issues for us.”

Added fellow board member Allison Crean Davis: “We understand we’re going to get questions about some of these other issues. We would characterize it as noise.”

That noise continued to get louder Monday as the commission accepted public comment on the academy’s application. Jaques and his supporters have argued that a potential donor promised the board $250,000 to fire the founding executive director.

Earlier this month, Daniel Amory admitted to the Portland Press Herald that he and his organization, the Jebediah Foundation, would not provide any more funding to the academy as long as Jaques was in charge. But board members at the time maintained that when they sought to draw upon a line of credit Jaques was supposed to have set up, the task hadn’t been done, leaving the organization in the lurch when it needed money for building improvements.

Chris Jones – a former member of Baxter Academy’s advisory board, a group of subject-matter experts lined up to help the school’s governing board of directors – said in a written statement submitted to the commission that “almost the entire advisory board resigned overnight” after the dismissal of Jaques.

“Looking at Baxter in the present time, most of the founders are all gone; too ashamed to work with a school that has become corrupt,” Jones wrote, in part. “The only people left at the school are the board of directors. The very people who were bought out and told to remove John Jaques. … The vision that the school has now is shrouded in lies and money.”

Fellow former advisory board member David Trask echoed Jones’ comments in a written submission of his own, calling the board’s removal of Jaques “unethical.”

“I, along with many of the original founders of Baxter Academy, attended many hearings and spoke on behalf of a plan and application I truly believed in,” Trask wrote. “One of the reasons I felt so strongly is due to the strength, character and beliefs of the people involved. That is no longer the case.”

In a brief statement read to reporters after the meeting, Jaques said, “Clearly, this is a new group moving forward with a new plan.”

The founding executive director lamented comments by academy board Chairwoman Kelli Pryor that the previous advisory board kept its distance from the board of directors, and needed to be replaced by advisers more actively involved with the directors.

“Some good information was presented today. However, it raises even more questions,” Jaques said. “I was disappointed to hear the board chair disparage the work and contributions of former members of the advisory board and former members of the board of directors.”

But others in attendance Monday urged the commission to grant the academy’s charter, saying that, regardless of an apparent power struggle behind the scenes, a school like Baxter Academy is needed in southern Maine.

“I have to admit the change of leadership at the academy has been difficult for us,” said Rachel Rodriguez, a Cumberland mother who hopes to send a daughter to school at Baxter in the fall. “But what we realize is that despite the naysayers and despite the difficulty, we support Baxter Academy more than ever.”

Laurie McCammon of Scarborough said her son earns $1,000 per month through programming he broadcasts through his own channel on the website YouTube, and that public schools cannot provide him the specialized technology education he needs to pursue such endeavors.

McCammon said she has received commitments from 34 parents to serve in a volunteer capacity in support of the school.

“(Baxter Academy is) bigger than the board. It’s bigger than John Jaques and (Portland Mayor) Mike Brennan. Don’t let anyone stand in the way of this school becoming a reality,” fellow mother Ruth Dean told the commission Monday.

Brennan wrote to the state attorney general’s office on Friday seeking an investigation of the proposed charter school. He referred to the academy’s allegations of “a pattern of mismanagement” in justifying its ouster of Jaques earlier this month.

Brennan has long opposed the allowance of charter schools and the creation of Baxter Academy in particular, arguing in part the charter schools would siphon government subsidies from already-cash-strapped public schools.

In his Friday letter, Brennan told the attorney general he plans to ask Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk to withhold payments to the new school until the office can decide on an investigation.

Following his dismissal, Jaques cut off the Baxter board’s access to the school website, email and documents, saying he personally owned the intellectual property.

The board filed a lawsuit against Jaques over the dispute, and has since started a new website with a different domain name.

Board officials told the commission on Monday they have received 156 applicants from students hoping to attend the academy in the fall, with another 12 on a wait list. They also told the panel they are only about $100,000 away from meeting their $350,000 fundraising goal before the start of the coming school year.

The top home community for academy applicants, so far, has been Portland, with 21, according to Cole. Another 11 are from South Portland, while nine each are from Freeport and Westbrook, and eight each are from Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn, he said.

“We believe in this mission, we as a board have worked very hard in circumstances we never would have wished to work under, but we did what we had to do for the kids, and everything we’ve done has been with them in mind,” Pryor told the commission.

Charter schools are public schools of choice that operate independently of local school districts. Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools following a law that passed the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature in 2011. For every student it enrolls, a charter school receives a tuition payment from the student’s home school district.

Sidebar Elements

Michele LaForge and Jonathan Amory discuss the academic approach proposed to be used at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science before the Maine Charter School Commission in Augusta Monday. LaForge, currently head of Freeport High School’s mathematics department, is in line to be the academy’s head of school, while Amory, who teaches at Freeport, will teach at the academy.