Just what is Good Will-Hinckley? And what does its president do?

The Prescott Memorial Building at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley. BDN file photo.

The Prescott Memorial Building at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley. BDN file photo.

If you’re like me, you were probably only tangentially aware of Good Will-Hinckley before this week.

Then news that Gov. Paul LePage pressured the nonprofit to fire Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves a month after it hired him exploded out of Augusta and around the state. (I’m not going to exhaust myself, or you, rehashing the details of the controversy but, if you need a primer, start here.)

In the flurry of news stories, press releases and TV interviews that followed, there’s been a blurring about what Good Will-Hinckley is, and what it does

That’s important, because whether you believe LePage overstepped his bounds by getting Eves fired may well depend on whether you believe, as the governor does, that Eves was unqualified to run Good Will-Hinckley.

To hear Eves’s critics tell it, the controversy is about the House Speaker taking the helm of The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, located at Good Will-Hinckley and integral to its operations, which opened its doors as one of the state’s first charter schools back in 2012. Eves has opposed charter schools throughout his political career.

But the four-year existence of a charter school at Good-Will Hinckley belies, by grossly oversimplifying, the long history of education and outreach to troubled kids at the Fairfield campus.

A brief history

Good Will-Hinckley was originally founded in 1889 by George Walter Hinckley, a teacher and preacher originally from Connecticut, according to the organization’s website. Inspired to help needy children, he bought the Good Will Farm in Fairfield, and established what would become the Good Will-Hinckley Homes for Boys and Girls. (Hinckley is the name of the village in Fairfield where the campus is located).

For more than 125 years, Good Will-Hinckley has operated as a residential facility, providing housing, services and education for homeless and at-risk youth. Its school was just one portion of Good Will-Hinckley’s offerings. For most of the organization’s existence, the school operated as just one piece of the private, nonprofit organization’s broader purpose of helping the children in its charge.

Young people often came to GW-H from unsafe or broken homes or families they couldn’t get along with. Some had gotten into trouble for not attending school or for breaking the law. Many were dropouts.

But after uninterrupted and growing operations for decades, Good Will-Hinckley closed its doors in 2009. The organizations depended in no small part on private foundation grants, which dried up during the recession.

Over the next two years, the organization worked to secure new funding, including state money distributed to the nonprofit, with the blessing of newly elected Gov. Paul LePage. Good Will-Hinckley also sold a larger portion of its campus to Kennebec Valley Community College.

Notably, this rebuilding was led by GW-H President Glenn Cummings, an educator and former Democratic Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, as well as a former deputy education secretary under President Barack Obama.

Good Will-Hinckley reopened in 2011. Its school was renamed the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, abbreviated as MeANS, with a focus on agriculture, forestry and environmental studies.

At that time, MeANS was operated as a private magnet school, similar to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. Cummings espoused GW-H’s mission serving needy kids, and said the Academy would continue the important work that had taken place in Fairfield for decades.

“For children who had leapfrogged between foster homes, the cottages that dot our rolling farmland — and the skilled, caring adults who lived and mentored them there — offered the first real home they’d ever had,” Cummings wrote in a BDN OpEd.

The Academy continued the work that had happened for years at Good Will-Hinckley, combining traditional education with hands-on skill building on the land that made up the huge campus. Students learned, in part, by working the plentiful lands that surround campus, overseeing crops and managing forests

After just one year, though, the Academy applied to be one of the state’ first public charter schools, under a new law allowing such schools to operate in Maine. Because of its new designation as a public charter school, the Academy had to spin-off from Good Will-Hinckley to operate as its own separate nonprofit corporation, with its own board of directors.

As a charter school, MeANS is eligible for General Purpose Aid, the pool of state money distributed for public education.

While the school was new in form, its function was the same as it had been since Good-Will Hinckley opened in the late 19th century.

“Today is an important day for the Good Will-Hinckley community, which begins a new chapter in our long history, but also for young people across Maine who have dropped out of sight or disengaged from school, because today they have a new opportunity to envision a better life for themselves,” Cummings said upon approval of the school’s charter application.

Good Will-Hinckley now

Today, MeANS is the flagship program of Good Will-Hinckley. The Academy operates independently, although it contracts many of its administrative services to Good Will-Hinckley, and is located on the historic Fairfield campus.

After MeANS, the Glenn Stratton Learning Center is the second-largest piece of the Good Will-Hinckley pie. It’s a day treatment center that works with area K-12 students who have emotional or behavioral problems, with the goal of getting the kids the skills they need to return to their own schools.

GW-H also operates a natural history museum and, in conjunction with Kennebec Valley Community College, a transition program for children aging out of foster care who want to attend KVCC.

As president of Good Will-Hinckley, Eves would have been in charge of all the nonprofit’s programs. But it’s the role he would have had with MeANS that attracted scorn from LePage and other Republicans.

While the Academy is financially and organizationally independent from Good Will-Hinckley, the ties between the two organizations are strong. In its own materials, MeANS describes itself as “an educational program of Good Will-Hinckley.”

Good Will-Hinckley appoints four of the nine MeANS board members, according to Rob Moody, interim president at Good Will-Hinckley. And while MeANS has its own principal who manages the day-to-day operations of the school, the principal answers to the Good-Will Hinckley president, Moody said.

The role of the Good-Will Hinckley president at MeANS is “kind of like being a superintendent,” Moody said. “That’s the best analogy I could use. They supervise the principal and report to the MeANS board.”

(Members of the two boards have also come under scrutiny in Eves’ hiring. Rep. Eric Jorgensen, D-Portland, is a member of the Good Will-Hinckley board, while Bill Brown, a senior staffer in the House Speaker’s office, sits on the MeANS board and is a former VP of operations at Good Will-Hinckley. Jack Moore, the chairman of the Good-Will Hinckley board, said both recused themselves from any consideration or action on Eves’ application.)

So, broadly speaking, MeANS is a charter school that’s continuing the longtime work of Good Will-Hinckley to help troubled children and kids in danger of dropping out of school. Though Eves has opposed charter schools, he contends he’s always supported the overall mission of Good Will-Hinckley.

Whether that makes him qualified to run a nonprofit centered around the school is up for dbeate. But Lepage wasn’t sold. He threatened to withhold the very same state funding he approved back in 2011, which helped Good Will-Hinckley reopen its doors, if Eves wasn’t canned.

And so on Wednesday, the school announced it would sever Eves’ contract and seek a new president.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.