Good Morning Members of the State Charter Commission. My name is Justin Alfond and I’m the State Senator for District 8 which includes most of Portland and the Islands of Great Diamond, Cliff and Peaks.
I want to thank the Charter Commission for all the heavy lifting you have done thus far. You were given a huge task and have done a tremendous amount of work against some tough odds.
Your timeline has been unrealistic, you’ve had no budget to speak of; when you’ve asked for expertise, you’ve been given none and the governor and his staff have been relentless in their lobbying to approve as many charters as possible. Despite this, you have done your work deliberately and with integrity to ensure the best possible outcome for students.
Charter Schools are state law and I’m interested in making sure that the best schools are created for students. I’ve read the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science application and I’m impressed. There is a real passion for learning, strong emphasis on curriculum and assessments and real world experiences. To ensure this vision is completed and done right, I stand before you to urge a one-year delay of the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science.
One of the major hurdles to opening Baxter Academy is the time frame. It is almost impossible to open and build a school from scratch in two months. Baxter acadmey would need to retrofit a old building, hire experienced STEM teachers and market to and recruit 160 students in 60 days.
Let’s first take the renovation of a 54 York Street. As of today, no construction has been done. I understand why BA and Rufas Deering Lumber Company would not want to hammer a nail until the application is approved, but here is my take of renovating buildings from experience. I’m an owner and have been involved in renovating three old buildings in Portland. They range from 15,000 sq/ft to 50,000 sq/ft. There are major hurdles to overcome including getting approved by different parts of Portland’s planning division. There are multiple inspections, Americans with Disabilities Act certification, health code, etc. — the list goes on and on. I am simply not convinced the renovations could be completed in 2 months.
Next, BA in their applications is suggesting that they hire eleven teachers in 60 days. In their application they state “classroom teachers will need a bachelor’s degree in a STEM related field and a strong online record of innovative and challenging in a public or private school setting for at least two years.” The classroom description goes on for seven or eight more sentences and my belief is that it will be hard to hire this caliber of teacher in 60 days without adequate notice and a thorough hiring process
Finally, BA will market and recruit 160 students in 60 days. I realize that the newness of charter will attract some students BA’s way, but the application spends only two paragraphs spelling out how the academy will market and recruit students. There main tool is online through their Facebook page and website. Online marketing is a great tool, but it has it’s limitations and I just don’t think 60 days will produce the 160 students they are projecting.
The second reason why BA should be delayed is their financials don’t support opening a school at this time. BA’s financial budget is very risky, is overly optimistic and is filled with potential mistakes. BA also appears to not have any plan for a reserve account and all the grants appear to be unrealized at this time. All of these issues could be more solid if BA had another year to plan and prepare.
The nature of any startup means there will be many challenges. Sound financial planning is essential in any startup and I see no mention of a reserve account for BA. This is a big red flag for me. The last thing we want any Maine charter school to experience if a quick closure because of the lack of financial resources.
The financial section of the application shows the risk of the applicant. BA must use a line of credit to start up and cover unanticipated costs. These phrase unanticipated costs is an appropriate one because there are so many moving variables when you are trying to do something in two months. For example what happens if there are construction cost overruns, what happens if BA does not meet it’s goal of recruiting 160 students, and what happens if only one or two of the grants are successful? Other questions that I would want to know is: How much is the line of credit for? What collateral is being used to secure the line of credit? BA’s budget is also showing a year 1 surplus of almost $329,000. I’m not sure how anyone could predict this type of result in any business with this many risks. Finally, there are many potential mistakes in the budget lines. Some lines are blank and others seems low, but what really caught my attentions is how BA per-pupil allocations equals $9,000 a student. When I was at the Deering HS State Charter Commission event it was said the per pupil allocations would be around $7,000. Unless that has changed, we could be looking at a $320,000 mistake.
Finally, the budget shows $295,000 of grants in year 1. I’ve searched the BA application and never found a list of the grants. Having started up a non-profit it is very challenging to get grants before you have any track record. BA not only does not have a track record, but they are requesting foundation funding before any students has officially committed, any teachers are tendered a contract or even one nail has been pounded for the renovation of the building.
My final reason for the delayed of BA is that schools need more time to prepare for the loss of state aid. Portland has a huge potential shortfall coming this fall due to students going to BA. I think it would appropriate for the taxpayers of the region to have one more year to prepare for this. As you all know, school budgets have been adopted and passed at this time and the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to budgets that are already cash-strapped is not
something most school districts can accommodate.
It is because all of these reasons that I urge the State Charter Commission to delay BA application. BA could be a great school, but I think it’s unrealistic for anyone is the room to think that their strong plan can be implemented in sixty days. I urge you to approve their application with the contingency that Baxter Academy be allowed to open in for the 2013-2014 school year, and I look forward to working with all of you to make Baxter Academy the best school it can possibly be.