AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- The board of the embattled Baxter Academy of Technology and Science made their case to Maine's Charter School Commission Monday that Baxter Academy can continue without its fired executive director, John Jaques. In two weeks, the school will find out whether Maine's Charter School Commission agrees and will be willing to grant them a charter contract.
Baxter Academy received a conditional charter from the commission last July. As of Monday, the school had letters of intent from 156 students, and 12 other students were on the wait list. It was planning to get commitment letters from the students in the next couple of weeks.
But on March 7, Baxter's board announced that it had ousted Jaques as executive director, citing concerns of mismanagement. Jaques countered that the school fired him at the whim of a big donor. And just last Friday, March 22, Portland's Mayor Michael Brennan asked the attorney general's office to look into Baxter's management, and how much oversight the charter school commission has actually given the school. A spokesperson for the attorney general's office said the letter as been received and would not comment further.
At Monday's hearing, members of the Charter Commission questioned Baxter's board on where the school's finances are now, as well as how prepared it is to start the academic program this fall.
The board said it's at about 72 percent of its fundraising goal for the year, and feels strongly it can raise the other $100,000 if it can show it has a contract from the charter commission. The board also showed off its newly hired head of school, Freeport teacher Michele LaForge, who spoke enthusiastically about some of the project-based learning initiatives the school would offer students.
Board members also told the commission that any lawsuits that might come of this dispute with Jaques will be covered by insurance and should not interfere with the academic program. Board Vice Chair Allison Crean Davis said, "We just want to see the school open September 3rd and make it incredibly successful beyond that. The turmoil around this is just noise to that effort and we're trying hard to ignore that noise and focus on what's important which is the education of our kids."
The commission also heard from supportive parents and potential students. Tammy Gagne, whose son Alec hopes to go to the school next year said, "My son doesn't simply want this charter. He needs it."
But there were others who were critical of Baxter's board. The charter commission received letters from two former members of the school's advisory board, and heard from a third. All were concerned that Jaques was fired at the wishes of a donor, not because he was a poor manager. Former advisory board member Carl Hesselbart said he didn't even realize he was no longer on the advisory board because he hadn't heard anything from the current board of directors. Hesselbart said, "because of everything that's happened, we don't believe that this was the school we were supporting."
Jaques was in the audience. He did not speak during public comment, but he did read this statement to reporters: "We all are here wanting the best for Maine students. Clearly this is a new group moving forward with a new plan. Some good information was presented today, however it raises even more questions. 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. I would also like to see the documents that were provided to the commission today be made public. The future of charter schools in Maine depends on transparency".
Jaques did not take questions, so it is unclear what questions he believes the testimony raised, or when he felt the board chair disparaged the work of the former advisory board members.
Charter Commission Chair Jana Lapoint said she heard a lot of new details about the academic program that she had been waiting for, and that she was excited about what the school planned to offer. She said the commission should have all the information it needs to vote on the charter contract in two weeks, but it will be carefully going through the financial information the school is providing. "I think they've pretty much covered everything," Lapoint said. "We need to make sure that budget can handle it and those donations are for real, and that their line of credit is secured."
The Charter Commission is expected to vote on whether to give Baxter Academy a charter contract during its regular meeting on April 8 at 1 p.m.