AUGUSTA — An alternative school for pregnant teens and high school dropouts is one step closer to opening as a public charter school in Maine next fall, even though a state education review team recommended against it.

At its meeting Tuesday, the six-member Maine Charter School Commission split 3-3 on whether to accept the review team’s recommendation against moving forward with the application from Wayfinder Academy.

After the vote, the commission consulted its lawyer, and was advised that the split vote meant Wayfinder Academy automatically moved forward to the next stage of the charter school application process, an in-person interview and public hearing on Nov. 8.

“That was unusual,” Commission Chairwoman Laurie Pendleton said after the meeting. Pendleton, Jana Lapoint and John Bird voted against the recommendation. Members Nicki Farnham, Mike Wilhelm and Shelley Reed voted in favor of the recommendation.

If approved, Wayfinder would be the final charter school allowed in Maine under the state’s 10-charter school cap.

Wayfinder Schools was created in 2011 out of the merger of The Community School – Maine’s first alternative high school – and the 100-year-old Opportunity Farm, according to its website.

It serves about 80 students through two programs. Eighteen students attend a nine-month residential program at its campuses in Camden and New Gloucester, and the rest are in an at-home program called Passages, for pregnant teens ages 14-20 who had to leave school because of parenthood.

But as a public charter school, Wayfinder would have to be open to anyone who wanted to attend, not just pregnant or at-risk youth.

The charter school commission review team’s concerns centered on how the Wayfinder model would translate to public school requirements, such as how to give annual assessments and show progress for students in a nine-month program. The review team also said the application was not clear on how the charter school would operate independently from the existing Wayfinder Schools, financially and administratively.

“The applicant has not shown sufficient evidence in the application or in oral presentation of creating a school that meets applicable state public school laws in the areas of special education, teacher certification, state assessment, and truancy/attendance,” the review committee wrote. “These schools are constructed around the express needs of a specific and limited type of student.”

Several of the existing charter schools in Maine started out as private schools that transitioned to public charter schools, including Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science, and Snow Pond Arts Academy.

The normally seven-member commission is down one member since Ande Smith resigned in April after being named to the State Board of Education. Former Education Commissioner Jim Rier has been nominated by the State Board of Education to fill the seat, but he has not completed the approval process. Rier needs to be interviewed by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and a date for that interview has not been set.

At the Nov. 8 meeting, the commission must have a two-thirds vote to approve entering into contract negotiations with the school. If a contract is signed, the school is granted a charter by the state and would open in the fall of 2017.

That means at least one dissenter on Tuesday must change his or her vote to support the application. Wayfinder is not allowed to change its application, but can submit additional information to “further define and clarify” what’s in the application, Pendleton said.

“Everyone is sort of going to have to vote their conscience on that,” Pendleton said about the Nov. 8 vote.

Wayfinder Schools CEO and Head of Schools Dorothy Foote said she hoped the commission would approve the application at the next meeting. She said she thought the commission’s concerns, such as how the school would handle special education students, was addressed in the current application.

“What we do is innovative. What is challenging is that innovation is pretty constricted,” she said.

She also reiterated that she believes the school should already be receiving public funds. Wayfinder has been trying for years to get public funding from the state, she said.

“Funding should be following students to our school anyways,” Foote said. “It doesn’t.”

Maine currently has seven brick-and-mortar charter schools and two virtual charter schools. A total of about 2,000 students attend charter schools in Maine, which has about 182,000 students in all.

Correction: This story was updated Oct. 5 to correct the date of the public hearing.


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