AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Charter School Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to reject four out of five pending applications for new charter schools in Maine, which Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said is obvious evidence of a flaw in the commission’s process.

“There’s obviously a problem here,” said Bowen ON Tuesday afternoon.

Harpswell Coastal Academy was the only charter school whose application will move forward in this round. Rejected were the Heartwood Charter School for Visual and Performing Arts in Kennebunk; Maine Connections Academy; Maine Virtual Academy; and the Queen City Academy Charter School in Hampden. Reasons for rejecting the four applications centered mostly on governance issues and the schools’ financial and curriculum plans.

Bowen said the rejections expose serious flaws in the process.

“What this leads me to wonder is are we at the Department of Education doing a good enough job and is the commission doing a good enough job in indicating to applicants what they should be doing,” Bowen said to the Bangor Daily News ON Tuesday afternoon. “My biggest concern is potentially the chilling effect this will have on other folks putting forward applications.”

Bowen said he doesn’t know what the solution may be, but he said at the very least he favors a review of guidance documents and the charter school law to determine if they are clear enough about the commission’s expectations. He also suggested that it should be easier for an applicant to get at least to a public hearing for an open discussion of the proposal.

Maine’s Charter School Law was passed by the Legislature in 2011. There are already two charter schools in operation and two more, the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science and the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences, are scheduled to open in September. Maine law allows up to 10 charter schools in the first decade under the new law, though Gov. Paul LePage is preparing legislation to lift that cap.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, declined to comment on the commission’s action Tuesday afternoon and referred questions to Bowen.

Scarborough-based Maine Connections Academy, one of two virtual charter schools proposed in thIS round of applications, sought to serve up to 1,000 students statewide in kindergarten through grade 12 with a first-year projected enrollment of 350. Members of the commission found that the school’s planned governance structure did not meet the intent of Maine law, which requires each school to have a governing board that’s independent from the school itself and has full legal, fiscal and funding authority.

“We did not find evidence that the governing board would be able to serve as an independent functioning entity for the proposed charter school,” said Richard Barnes, a member of the commission who headed a subcommittee that studied the academy’s application.

Maine Virtual Academy, which applied to be a virtual school based in the Portland area, sought to serve up to 1,000 K-12 students. The commission found similar problems with the academy’s proposed governance structure, including that it did not propose to have a staff person assigned as a liaison between the governing board and day-to-day operations.

Former state Sen. Peter Mills, who is now executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, is part of the group trying to launch Maine Virtual Academy. He said during Tuesday’s hearing that he was dismayed that his organization never had a chance to explain itself before the commission, and that the commission didn’t have a way to help applicants understand expectations.

“What I’m concerned about this afternoon is that I don’t know at this point where to go,” said Mills. “I was looking forward to a dialogue about what our application lacked and how we could go forward. It’s hard to look into things when we don’t even have a chance to have a conversation.”

Members of the commission said such a discussion with an applicant would be improper, but some suggested that the commission should be able to help organizations before or after an application is pending.

The Heartwood Charter School in Kennebunk, which would have served about 54 students in grades 6-8 with an emphasis on visual and performing arts, also was rejected Tuesday because of its proposed governance structure. The Queen City Academy Charter School, which proposed to serve about 420 students in grades 6-12 with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, had its application rejected because of governance issues, its financial plan and curriculum design.

There were some who welcomed the commission’s rejection of the four applications, including the Maine School Boards Association, which has long opposed charter schools in Maine, partly because they siphon funding away from traditional public schools.

Connie Brown, MSBA’s executive director, said after Tuesday’s meeting that her organization had prepared a petition to intervene in the charter school approval process, which is allowed under the Maine Administrative Procedures Act. However, based on the commission’s action Tuesday, that request was withheld.

“I’m very pleased and feel these were the right decisions for the commission to make,” said Brown. “The commission was very thoughtful and they raised a lot of the same questions that were at the center of our petition to intervene.”

The approval of Harpswell Coastal Academy’s application means the commission and the school will spend the next several weeks developing an extensive contract that lays out how the school will operate and how the commission will oversee it.

John D’Anieri, a consultant working with the school, said “a lot of hard work” remains before the school can open in September of this year, including finding a facility to base the school at, hiring staff and attracting students. Before that happens, though, the academy will have to iron out a contract with the charter school commission. That process begins on Jan. 18 with a public hearing.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.