The “Big 10” Maine Town Academies have been in operation for over 225 years. They are known as “60/40” schools because at least 60% of their funding is public money. Many are almost 100% publicly funded, and these voucher schools are “private schools” when it is convenient and “public” when they want public money.
The ”private” nature of our town academy became a reality when I sought protection from continuing racial harassment—both of my children and me. What follows is what happened to us and why taxpayers should not continue to fund town academies without serious reforms.
I am a naturalized citizen from Mexico, the 23-year spouse of a disabled Veteran, and a former High School Spanish teacher at Washington Academy (WA) in East Machias, Maine, where my daughters and I were the targets of constant racial discrimination. During my five years at the school, the intensity of discrimination increased, particularly after Donald Trump was elected. In March 2020, I found a noose in my classroom, not long before a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration on June 7, 2020, during which counter-protesters staged a hateful intimidation attempt against peaceful demonstrators. Our daughter Natalia who was a student at WA had participated in many discussions in person and on social media showing her support for local efforts to stand up for equality. In those social media discussions, we witnessed students and a former student of WA continue their intimidation campaign.
Natalia’s response was to write a detailed letter reporting the discrimination to the school’s administration and board. She recounted multiple instances of racial discrimination at WA, including constant jokes about her ethnicity, comparing her to Dora the Explorer, anti-immigrant speech, teasing about the border wall (and I.C.E.), and kids flashing MAGA undershirts to taunt her, telling her that “if you don’t like it then leave” or “go home.” Her letter was sent to the President of the Board of Trustees and the administrators on June 8, 2020, but to this day, the Board of Trustees has refused to ever speak with her or my family. Natalia then took an incredibly brave, public stand against racism and bigotry and started a Change.org petition that detailed her demands for positive change.
The Maine Department of Education (MDOE) did nothing when this discrimination was reported, and the Maine Attorney General’s Office never investigated or addressed the issues at a school level. Although we left the state for our safety, Natalia’s petition inspired our family to continue to fight for over a year for a new state law to address the broad disparities in health, safety, curriculum, and fiscal oversight at these old voucher schools to ensure future students and staff would have more legal recourse. Starting this year, schools that are 60% publicly funded must now meet the same state health and safety rules (including anti-bullying laws) and school curriculum standards. If they are more than over 85% publicly funded, they must now accept all students in the area who apply.
Sadly, schools that are publicly funded below these thresholds remain exempt. To ensure a near complete lack of fiscal oversight by the MDOE, the local school boards, or the taxpayers who fund them, the schools fought the passage and enactment of the law. The bill’s sponsor quietly removed the only portion of the bill that would have ensured fiscal transparency and local accountability in committee.
As a result, these schools will never answer to elected school board members, hold regular school board meetings where parents and taxpayers can ask them questions, or disclose their school budget. Community input on decisions such as massive foreign tuition reduction scholarships (or what children – far from home – must agree to for these scholarships), or the incredible level of compensation for school leadership teams cannot be questioned. Maine Central Institute spent nearly $500k in one year on “finders fees paid for recruiting students” in Russia and East Asia. The schools spend lavishly on extensive foreign travel by school leadership to countries such as Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, U.K. Kazakhstan, and other countries.
Town tuition Lee Academy has massive foreign campuses in China and South Korea. Washington Academy’s recent financial audit identified many “material misstatements,” but taxpayers will never get to ask them what that means. MDOE has confirmed they have no records of any audits of these schools, and I believe annual financial audits should be conducted at the same level of scrutiny as public schools.
The Maine legislators have decided to avoid addressing serious issues to date, but every day is a new opportunity for them to do the right thing. For the sake of Maine’s taxpayers and students, I hope they accept that challenge.
Esther Kempthorne is a professionally certified K-12 Spanish teacher, born and educated in Mexico. She is a proud naturalized U.S. Citizen, spouse of a disabled Veteran, lifelong educator, and a mother of two amazing daughters. She and her family now reside in New York City.