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Against the Odds, Cornville’s Public Charter School Offers Opportunity to Maine Students

Several students from Cornville Regional Charter School out for a winter hike in Carrabasset  Valley.

Several students from Cornville Regional Charter School out for a winter hike in Carrabasset Valley.

In the face of tremendous opposition from Democratic legislators, the powerful teachers’ union, and even nameless vandals, Cornville Regional Charter School is giving students opportunities previously unavailable to them in the traditional education system.

“We don’t know who did it or why,” said Justin Belanger, executive director of the Cornville Regional Charter School (CRCS). “But someone entered the school building, popped a ceiling tile, cut the school’s intercom and internet wires, and left them dangling in the hallway,” said Belanger.

The act of vandalism occurred sometime between the closure of Cornville Elementary School in 2010 and the repurposing of that school building for CRCS shortly after Gov. Paul R. LePage signed charter school legislation into law on June 30, 2011.

“Whoever did this had it in mind to make it more expensive for the building’s next occupants,” said Belanger, who did not file a police report upon discovering the act. “Since we don’t know when it happened, it’s tough to say who did it or why,” he said. “But it’s pretty clear it wasn’t an accident.”

CRCS, the first elementary public charter school in the state of Maine, opened its doors Oct. 1 to sixty students in grades K-6.

Belanger said a parent of a student at CRCS volunteered to fix the school’s sabotaged electrical infrastructure, saving the fledgling charter school more than $3,000 in repair costs.

CRSC Executive Director Justin Belanger addresses staff, students and parents about the significance of the American flag.

CRSC Executive Director Justin Belanger addresses staff, students and parents about the significance of the American flag.

While the vandalism of the Cornville school building may be a particularly egregious example of anti-charter school sentiment fomenting across the state, Maine’s public charter schools have also been subjected to attacks from administrative personnel at traditional schools and the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Less than 48 hours after National Charter School Day, for example, the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs chaired by Sen. Rebecca J. Millet (D-Cumberland) voted to cut funding for Maine’s two charter schools while ignoring the budgets of other state-funded alternative schools. The move was widely seen as retaliation against LePage’s proposed cuts to revenue-sharing agreements between the state and municipalities. Proponents of public charter schools saw it as an attempt to pull the rug out from under the fledgling schools.

Other yet-to-be-considered bills introduced by Democrats, and one by a Republican, also target public charter school funding or seek to enforce organizational changes on the schools:

Rep. Matthea E. Daughtry (D-Brunswick) has introduced a bill that would force public charter schools to be organized as not-for-profit corporations. L.D. 671, An Act to Protect Charter Schools by Requiring Them To Be Operated as Nonprofit Organizations would theoretically apply to both physical and virtual charter schools; in practice, however, all of Maine’s physical public charter schools already operate as non-profits. So Daughtry’s bill, which has nine co-sponsors including Education Committee Chair Millet, is an apparent attempt to prevent corporate, for-profit entities that provide virtual charter school programs and services from gaining entry into the state. (For a list of online learning program providers, visit GreatSchoolsForME.org.)

Rep. W. Bruce MacDonald (D-Boothbay) has introduced L.D. 481, An Act To Amend the Laws Governing Virtual Public Charter Schools. Part of the bill would force education personnel who operate a virtual public charter school to hold a valid teacher certification in Maine. It would also mandate that teachers make 2 personal visits to students during a given school year. MacDonald’s bill would also, however, reduce the total amount of education funding that can follow a virtual charter school student to 20 percent.

Also from MacDonald’s desk is L.D. 533, An Act To Eliminate the Requirement That Local Funding Follow a Pupil to a Charter School. This bill eliminates the requirement that a school administrative unit’s local contribution to the per-pupil allocation follow a student to a public charter school and instead requires only that the State’s contribution to the per-pupil allocation follow the student to a public charter school but allows the local contribution to follow a student attending a public charter school established solely to address the needs of at-risk pupils as defined in the Maine Revised Statutes, Title 20-A, section 2401. L.D. 533, like L.D. 481, would reduce the State’s per-pupil allocation to 20 percent. According to data at MaineOpenGov.org, in the 2011-2012 school year, 59 percent of funding for K-12 schools state wide came from local sources.

Rep. Paul E. Bennet (R-Kennebunk) has introduced L.D. 889, An Act To Adjust Funding Forwarded from School Districts to Charter Schools. Bennet’s bill would cut the amount of per pupil funding public charter schools receive by half. His bill would also prevent school administrative units for having to forward funding to public charter schools for students previously homeschooled or enrolled in private schools.

The attempts to limit or curtail the amount of funding public charter schools receive has come in response to complaints from traditional school districts who have seen losses in funding following an exodus of students to newly opened charter schools in the area. Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) 54, which includes Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan, is one district that has seen its budget shrink due to a large number of students fleeing for an opportunity at a charter school.

In its first year of operation, CRSC accepted 45 students from MSAD 54. This corresponds to a loss in funding of more than $350,000 in per-pupil allocations, according to estimates provided by Belanger.

Several Skowhegan-area sources said MSAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry has not been shy with his complaints over the district’s loss of funding.

“When teachers submit purchase orders for school supplies, the superintendent tells them there’s no money in the budget because of the charter school,” said a well-placed source who asked to remain anonymous. According to the source, Colbry’s attitude has trickled down into the community and turned public favor against charter schools.

“The charter school must constantly defend itself against attacks and misinformation,” the source said.

Colbry’s office did not return emails or phone calls as of the writing of this story.

According to data available at MaineOpenGov.org and GreatSchoolsForME.org, MSAD 54’s entire budget for the 2011 – 2012 school year was $29,415,233, with 55 percent coming from the state and the other 45 percent coming from property taxes. This means the share of MSAD 54’s funding which has been forwarded to CRSC is less than 1.2 percent of its total annual budget.

But MSAD 54′s funding shortfalls did not begin when CRSC’s doors opened. Indeed, from 2009 to 2010, the district lost 74 students. This means MSAD 54′s dropping enrollment and hence its budget problems predate CRSC by at least a year. This trend should have been foreseeable to those who craft its budgets.

Belanger said he regrets that many members of the community have misperceptions of and ill will for his school, but that he and others associated with the school are working hard to overcome the public’s prejudices.

“When we talk with people and show them what we’re doing, show them that we’re different, then they start to realize we have something to offer, that we’re not just duplicating services already provided by traditional schools,” said Belanger. “We offer a totally different program and we are meeting a need not currently met by traditional schools,” he said.

Unlike traditional schools, CRSC uses personal learning plans for every pupil and proficiency-based learning whereby students are grouped according to ability, not age or grade, said Belanger. He said his school also offers 90 minutes a week of agricultural education, which includes gardening projects and raising chickens. Students are also allowed forty-five minutes a day to pursue educational opportunities according to their particular interests, he said, including juggling, basket-weaving, knitting and quilting.

Belanger said he is very grateful to the local community for the help CRSC received in getting started. “This is a group effort, many people are behind us,” he said.

Belanger said the town of Cornville offered to keep the school building heated and maintained at no cost while CRSC was getting organized. He said a local insurance company has donated the legally required coverage policy and more than 50 area businesses have donated money and supplies.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the town and local businesses,” he said.

As for CRSC’s tenuous relationship with MSAD 54, Belanger said he wished Colbry would keep in mind the real purpose of the tax dollars allocated to schools.

“It’s not their money. It’s not our money. It’s money for the students,” he said.

 

Watch a promotional video from Cornville Regional Charter School below:


By S.E. Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter

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