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Home > MSMA News > Commission divides over definition of true public charter – October 5, 2016

Commission divides over definition of true public charter – October 5, 2016

The Maine Charter School Commission split 3-to-3 on moving ahead with its only applicant for the last charter school authorization available in Maine, with members divided on whether the proposal could actually operate a true public school, open to all.

The applicant, Wayfinder Schools, established through the merger in 2011 of The Community School of Camden and Opportunity Farm in New Gloucester, essentially wants to turn its current private school operation into a public charter school. Wayfinder operates a residential program serving 16 at-risk students, and also offers a home-based program for parenting or pregnant teens.

The three members of the commission that did the initial review of the school’s application voted against giving it a charter because they said the application did not outline how it could operate as a public school when it would be required to open enrollment to all applicants. Students who were not at risk could apply for the residential program, for example.

The three other commissioners voted to move the application to the next approval stage, which will include a public hearing on Nov. 8.

At issue is the current Wayfinder Schools serve very specific populations, and, under public charter school law, any student, regardless of their circumstances, can apply. If there are too many applicants for spaces available, a lottery is held.

In addition to concerns about open enrollment, the review team found the Wayfinder application did not show sufficient evidence the proposed charter school “meets applicable state public school laws in the areas of special education, teacher certification, state assessment, and truancy/attendance.”

“They have to be able to demonstrate they know state laws and can follow them,” said review team member, Shelley Reed. “The program meets the needs of their current population, but are they ready to be a public school?”

“They need to show us they can do a great school as a public charter school,” said review team chair, Nichi Farnham.

Commission members Jana Lapoint and John Bird both countered that because there was a need for a charter school to serve at-risk youth, the commission should work with Wayfinder to essentially fix their application – a move that others cautioned could be in violation of charter statute.

“We’ve had other applicants that have had problems at this stage in the process,” said Lapoint, and the commission has worked to help them improve their proposal. Lapoint used as an example the Cornville Regional Charter School, which was one of the first schools approved by the commission four years ago.

Charter Commission Executive Director Bob Kautz reminded the commission that the process has changed and improved over the last four years with the recognition that it is not the commission’s role to help improve applications.

“You have to stop and think about those that were denied at this stage. If you change it (process) now, saying ‘you haven’t got it in there’ and give them time to correct it,” Kautz said, others can say they were treated differently.

The question, he said, is “How do we maintain fidelity of the law and fidelity of the maturation that the commission has experienced?”

The commission conferred with their liaison in the Attorney General’s Office on the 3-3 vote and said they were told it meant the application could move forward to the public hearing phase.

In the end, however, some members suggested the way to go may be to try and change the charter school law so it can serve specific populations.

The charter slot Wayfinder is hoping to fill is the last one available for now because statute has capped it at 10 schools through 2021.

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