Charter school foes, fans testify at hearing

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AUBURN — Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster is not opposed to a taxpayer-funded charter school opening in Lewiston or Auburn.

But such a school must have a foundation of trust, Webster said Friday as he delivered damaging testimony to the state commission that will decide whether the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School can open.

The Maine State Charter School Commission held a public hearing Friday at Central Maine Community College on the proposed school, which wants to open with 180 students in September.

Webster named three people that the application lists as supporters but whom Webster said are not. “It raises some concern about the truthfulness in this application,” he said.

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He said he contacted former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, whom the application says provided a letter of support for the charter school.

Gilbert told the superintendent he met with the group, “but he did not in any way, at any time, indicate support for the school or provide any letter of support,” Webster said at the hearing.

Gilbert told the Sun Journal on Friday night, “I never said I endorsed the charter school. Personally, I’m opposed to it because the funding would only take away from the public schools.”

Webster told commissioners he recognized another name on the list, Lincoln Jeffers, the economic development director for the city of Lewiston.

“I spoke with Jeffers. He said, ‘Yes, I did meet with the group. Yes, I did offer suggestions. But no, at no time did I offer any support nor did I provide a letter of support for the proposed charter school,’” Webster said.

Webster said he contacted another person on the list, Bates College professor Mara Tieken. In emails, Tieken told Webster she met with charter school backers, but she was clear she has mixed feelings about charter schools, “and I wouldn’t write a letter of support. So this does feel like a misrepresentation,’” Tieken said, according to Webster.

Webster also questioned the proposed school’s ties to Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who, according to Wikipedia, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Webster said charter school applicant Tarlan Ahmadov is courting Lewiston Muslim students for the school.

The so-called Gulen movement includes schools around the country. A New York Times report about Gulen charter schools in Texas raised questions about whether the schools are using taxpayer money to benefit Gulen teachings. The Muslim theologian believes in science, interfaith dialogue and multi-party democracy, according to Wikipedia.

The proposed Lewiston-Auburn school is based on the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Massachusetts. The Pioneer school focuses on math and science and has high student achievement and high test scores. When the Pioneer school was formed about six years ago, it “drew heavily on the application of the Harmony Charter Schools, a Gulen-inspired charter school operator in Texas,” Webster said.

Published reports have raised questions about how the Texas Gulen schools were spending public money, saying they were hiring teachers from Turkey and giving business to Gulen followers or foundations that promote Gulen teachers and Turkish culture.

None of that means the local charter school would be tied to Gulen or would be a religious school, Webster said. But if the school is non-religious, “why is it targeting Muslims?” he asked.

The application includes 300 surveys from people who support the school, including 201 from Lewiston, of which 180 have names typical of Lewiston immigrants who practice Islam, Webster said.

He said he spoke with a member of the local mosque and was told Ahmadov, the applicant, spoke there and distributed surveys. Webster said he checked with Catholic churches and the East Auburn Baptist Church — the largest churches in the area — and learned Ahmadov did not appear at those churches.

“The bottom line is that, right or wrong, Gulen or not, the parents of this potential school likely view the school as matching well with their Muslim faith and quite possibly that is the only reason they would support the school,” Webster said.

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin raised concerns about who would monitor teachers hired by the proposed school, citing Boston Globe reports that the Pioneer school hired teachers from Turkey and spent thousands of dollars on immigration costs helping teachers obtain their visas.

“Our concerns are, how are we monitoring who’s going to be hired, under what stipulation?” Grondin said.

Speaking in favor of the school, several Pioneer Charter School of Science students came from Massachusetts to share their experiences.

Assil Warden, a senior, has attended Pioneer since the eighth grade. Warden said he has been accepted at four colleges, including Bentley. He hopes to attend Duke and study business law.

Pioneer is a school that challenges you, he said. Teachers offer tutoring on Saturdays and after school without being paid, he said. One teacher came to his house to help him, Warden said. “He was a great teacher. He wasn’t a Muslim trying to infiltrate my mind,” Warden said. “Maine would greatly benefit by having a Pioneer.”

Pioneer senior Theonide Pierre, who wants to become a pediatrician, said at her old school she wasn’t passing, but at Pioneer she’s succeeding and has been accepted at six colleges. “Teachers help you with everything.”

The commission is scheduled to vote on March 4.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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