LEWISTON — The local School Committee is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposal to create an online high school.

Superintendent Bill Webster said he had reservations about lessons being offered exclusively online, but he’d rather a student attend a Lewiston virtual school than the district pay thousands of dollars to a charter school.

Webster said he recently learned that the Lewiston School Department can offer the same virtual program from Pearson Learning Solutions, a private company, that charter school Maine Connections Academy is offering.

“We can offer the same program at half of what it costs to send them, and offer other options,” such as the ability to participate in Lewiston schools’ athletics and clubs, he said.

“Probably everyone ought to have that experience of online learning,” Webster said.

Public schools now have to compete not to lose students to charter schools. For each Lewiston student who opts to enroll in a charter school, the Lewiston School Department loses more than $8,000 from its budget.

“I want to do our best to keep them in Lewiston,” Webster said.

Ten Lewiston students attend Baxter Academy, a charter school in Portland, and four have registered with the virtual charter school, Webster said.

Making the presentation Monday night will be Lewiston High Principal Linda MacKenzie.

The virtual school would be offered “right in the walls of Lewiston High” in the fall of 2015. Tammy Thibodeau, a teacher and coach, would be the coordinator, Webster said.

Portland School Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk is also proposing to partner with the for-profit company to create a Portland online school, an idea opposed by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who said the idea deserves scrutiny.

Maine Commissioner Jim Rier said Thursday it’s premature for Lewiston and Portland superintendents to say local districts could enroll students in district virtual programs at a lower cost.

“It isn’t the same program,” Rier said, adding that Maine Connections Academy’s virtual charter program was approved by the Maine Charter Commission. “It requires a bunch of things that aren’t provided by Pearson,” Rier said. The local district could find that the savings they’re expecting aren’t there, he said.

Once home-schooled students enroll in a local district’s online program, that district would be responsible for all kinds of costs, including special education, Rier said.

He added that if a virtual program is offered to some Lewiston students, “you have to offer it to all, including those already enrolled” in Lewiston schools.

He recommended that school superintendents “be cautious” about starting virtual schools.

He suggested they work to change state law so that when students enroll in a charter school, local schools are not punished financially.

The Lewiston School Committee will meet at 6:45 p.m. Monday, Sept. 8, at the downtown Dingley Building.


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