By Dustin Luca
---- — By this time next year, Bancroft Elementary School will have a new home, its old one reduced to rubble. A road map for a possible high school expansion will be laid out. A charter school proposal will either be picking up steam ... or long since dead.
For all intents and purposes, 2014 will be the year of the school in Andover.
As the new year arrives, several school-related projects are in motion — either already under way or still in the dream phase.
“There are a range of things that the schools will have to address during the course of the year,” said School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue, who will be wrapping up his tenure on the board this spring. “Who knows if any of these become more important than the other.”
Forgue said the items facing school leadership are “the budget, contract negotiations, opening Bancroft, continued academic innovations at the high school (and) potential space plans for the high school.”
Then there’s STEAM Studio.
Unlike the other stories heading into 2014, a charter school proposal led in part by School Committee member David Birnbach could see an early end. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to either award or deny a charter for the proposed school in February. The deadline for the public to offer comment on the 425-student charter high school is Friday, Jan. 3. From there, Andover then waits for the state to make its decision.
If it doesn’t receive its charter, Birnbach said the group driving it would “have to reassess what the plans would be going forward.”
“We haven’t really looked beyond that,” he said. “We’re working toward success right now.”
If the charter is awarded, “we’ll have a home for the school by February,” Birnbach said. “We’ll have students able to register as of March 1.”
While that scenario plays out, another runs on the school’s administrative side. Infused with a $225,000 vote at Annual Town Meeting in 2013, three schools are the targets of space needs studies — the biggest being Andover High School.
That study is expected to return early in the year — around February or March, Forgue estimates — with what Andover High could do to address its more-than-documented overcrowding woes and facility needs.
An expansion at the school several years down the road has been ballparked at around $20 million by many officials, a number Forgue cautions against taking seriously.
“The numbers that have been thrown around have, really, no basis in fact right now because there has been no discussion or deliberation around any of this,” Forgue said. “None will take place until, at least, we get the report, the findings of the work being done now.”
The fact that conversations to expand the current Andover High School and the proposed creation of a charter high school run alongside one another has sparked a totally different discussion around town.
A charter school opening its doors in Andover “may call into question adding additional classrooms” to the high school, according to Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski.
School officials — particularly administrators and members of the School Committee and Andover Education Association — have all spoken out against STEAM Studio in support of advancing Andover High instead.
The Board of Selectmen, typically removed from school discussions, is watching what happens as the issue unfolds, with Selectman Brian Major saying one matter could potentially resolve the other.
“Say we had 300 students from Andover go to the new charter school. That puts us under capacity at the high school,” Major said. “A gigantic, $15 million to $20 million expansion wouldn’t be necessary.”
But whether or not the charter school goes forward isn’t the only question to consider when discussing a high school expansion, Selectman Dan Kowalski said.
“There’s multiple paths that can be taken based upon whether the charter school is approved and the number of students from Andover who choose to go to the charter school,” he said. “We know some students, some kids presently in private schools, may choose to go to the charter school, which won’t decrease the volume of kids at Andover High.”
Either way, Selectman Paul Salafia cautioned against taking a position on the high school expansion before the state decides whether to award STEAM Studio a charter.
“The charter school needs to be resolved prior to any decision on the expansion of the high school,” he said.
Selectman Mary Lyman echoed the same concern, saying she didn’t know “if I could answer that question or not.”
However, “it worries me, is (the charter school) the right way,” Lyman said. “Is that what’s missing from the high school? Would it benefit Andover High School, or is something else needed?”
Regardless of whether the charter school moves forward or not, both Major and Stapczynski said the high school is still in need of work.
“They need to look at the cafeteria and the kitchen in the cafe,” Stapczynski said. “That has to be done no matter what because of the inadequacies today.”
Those inadequacies could still require an expansion, Major said — just a smaller one.
“Instead of spending $15 million to $20 million, maybe we’re spending $3 million to $5 million,” he said.
In either case, two important scenarios will play out in February that will set the course for the rest of the year, selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli said.
“We’ll know in February if we even go forward,” he said. “Once that decision gets made one way or the other, we’ll go forward with whatever hand the town has been dealt.”