Battle brewing between City Hall and proposed Baxter Academy in Portland

The proposed Baxter Academy for Technology & Science, long in the pole position to become Maine’s first charter school under the new law allowing such schools, has more than a year of planning by a team of specialists behind it, as well as an option for a recognizable building in Portland and a deal with global heavyweight Google to provide technology.

This 20,000-square-foot building at 54 York St. in Portland will become the new home of Baxter Academy if the organization is approved to become the state’s first charter school.

But Baxter Academy also has a big opponent: Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Brennan and Baxter Academy Executive Director John Jaques have publicly sparred over the proposed charter school’s impact on education in the city, with Brennan arguing vociferously that it will deplete Portland Public Schools of students and the state subsidies tied to them, while Jaques has claimed the school will be a crucial component of a burgeoning research-and-development-based academic community Brennan himself trumpeted during his mayoral campaign last fall.

The Maine Charter School Commission is currently working its way through applications from groups hoping to establish charter schools all over the state, and Jaques has acknowledged the narrow window Baxter Academy has this summer between pursuing its state certification and getting students enrolled.

Potentially complicating matters is the vehement opposition from Brennan, who has been outspoken against the school in past months and today testified before the commission, urging the group — which is already taking a deliberative approach to its application reviews — to outright deny Baxter Academy’s application.

Michael Brennan (BDN file photo by John Clarke Russ)

Here’s Brennan’s entire statement on the matter, as provided today by City Hall:

The Baxter Academy does not appear to offer anything new or different to Portland students. Rather, the academy, should it achieve charter school status, will divert critical resources away from the Portland School System.

As estimated by the Portland School System, if the Baxter Academy is granted charter school status Portland students electing to attend the school will cost the school system approximately $8,832 each. Currently, the Portland School System receives about 15 percent of its funding from the State of Maine with the remaining 85 percent funded by the local property tax. With the Baxter Academy administrators hoping to attract more than one hundred students from the Portland area, the Portland School System could face a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars this fall. The financial impact of just fifty students could be as much as $441,000 of which $375,000 would be paid for by the local property tax.

Last month, the voters of Portland approved next year’s school budget. If the Baxter Academy’s application is approved, the financial impact would be felt immediately, upending months of work and planning for the upcoming school year.

With the loss of millions of dollars of funding at both the state and federal level, it does not make sense nor does it serve our community’s youth to approve this application. Instead of subsidizing a local charter school, we should be investing in expanding and improving the opportunities available at Deering, Portland, PATHS and Casco Bay High School.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of honoring Portland’s top high school graduates at a City Council meeting. These students are headed to some of the best colleges and universities in the country this fall. Tufts, Cornell, Yale, Brown and the University of Maine all see what I see, which is that the city of Portland’s four high schools offer exceptional and diverse educational opportunities for our youth.

Will Brennan’s push be convincing to the commission? Will the mayor’s opposition create enough doubt in the academy’s future to stunt the number of students seeking enrollment in the coming semester? If Baxter Academy is granted state certification, what will the new school’s relationship be with City Hall?

There are a lot of questions we won’t have good answers to until months down the road, maybe even years. I can imagine a scenario in which we look back at this battle over Baxter Academy being the signature issue of Mayor Brennan’s first year in office, depending on how it pans out and what the impacts — good or bad — turn out to be for Portland.

Jaques, for his part, has been able to illustrate significant support for his school in rebuttal. During a public hearing held at Deering High School by the commission in March, Jaques has said more than 50 parents and teachers came out to speak in support of a science and technology charter school based in Portland, among them public school teachers from Freeport, Gray-New Gloucester and Portland itself.

Jaques has said Baxter Academy plans to accept 160 freshmen and sophomores in the coming 2012-13 school year (if everything else falls into place and the school can, indeed, open) from across 42 public schools within striking distance (there are also private school students and home-schooled kids who could apply).

Based on state limitations on how many students any given charter school can take from any single nearby public school, Baxter Academy could conceivably absorb 104 ninth and 10th graders from the Portland Public Schools in the fall, but only if the academy accepted every single Portland-based applicant it could legally take. That would leave 56 2012-13 slots for students from the other 36 public schools in the southern Maine region defined as Baxter Academy’s territory.

Being that the students will be chosen based on a lottery system, the breakdown will be more random than that. But it’s perhaps fair to say that because the proposed academy would be located in Portland and Portland is the most populated city in Maine, the odds are good that many of Baxter Academy’s students will be Portlanders.

And it would take less than a third of the academy’s goal population for the coming school year to be Portlanders for Brennan’s math to be accurate.

In Portland, we’re seeing the larger debate about charter schools play out on a local stage. Opponents say the schools siphon public money from already cash-strapped public schools, while proponents say the educational benefits for students working in the charter schools are worth the movement of funds.

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.