Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

October 24, 2013

STEAM Studio faces sharp concerns

Officials fear funding loss from charter high school

By Dustin Luca

---- — Andover public school officials are painting a grim picture of what would happen if a charter high school opened its doors in town.

They say a 450-student charter school — the size of the one being actively pursed by a team led by School Committee member David Birnbach — could cost the town about $5.8 million in annual state education aid, under a worst-case scenario.

The damage would potentially come in the form of dozens of teaching positions lost at Andover High School, they said,

Officials highlighted their concerns this week at a combined meeting of the School Committee, Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee.

Birnbach, who was out of the country on a business trip and did not attend Monday’s meeting, disagreed with the projections. He is advocating for the creation of STEAM Studio, a charter school focused on the core areas of science, technology, math and the arts. It would be phased in over four years, with a maximum enrollment of 450 students in grades nine through 12.

STEAM Studio has been invited by the state to apply for a charter license. Its application is due into the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Friday, Oct. 25.

A loss of up to 450 students “would have a disproportionate impact” at Andover High, School Committee member Annie Gilbert said.

In fiscal year 2012, the town spent $12,805 on per-pupil expenditure, the benchmark for how much a single student’s Andover education costs per year, Gilbert said.

With the average salary of an Andover High teacher marked at $60,000, the cost of 450 students totaling $5.8 million would equate to 96 teaching positions, according to Gilbert.

Currently, the school employs around 110 to 115 teachers, according to school psychologist and Andover Education Association President Kerry Costello.

Based on other estimates, attributing to how much of the town’s budget goes to the School Department each year, the pain could be shared throughout town. But even then, School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue said “you potentially lose 25 percent of the students at the high school and 48 percent of the faculty” in one scenario.

Birnbach offered a different take in an email provided to The Townsman that he originally sent to the chairmen of the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen, as a member of the STEAM charter school charter team, not as a town official.

“It appears that the reimbursement to the district (each year for six years) will be significant,” Birnbach said.

By his calculations using the most recent numbers available — a $15,871 per-pupil tuition rate — the town would be reimbursed $1.59 million if 100 Andover students enroll in the first year.. Then, after five years at 25 percent reimbursement, the town would receive $3.57 million for those 100 students lost.

Throughout those first six years, “while the district no longer incurs the cost to educate the students, the district will still receive a rebate from the state,” Birnbach wrote.

Officials agreed that any of the scenarios being discussed would take years to develop. With the charter enrollment increasing year to year, the town would be reimbursed 25 percent of the charter school’s tuition from the second to sixth year of the school’s operation, Gilbert said.

Then, once year seven starts, the town would receive no reimbursement for money lost to the charter school, according to Gilbert.

That also assumes the school would enroll only Andover students. By design, students could be enrolled from other surrounding communities if Andover students don’t fill all the seats via an enrollment lottery, Gilbert said.

The school district also would not likely share the full hit of the lost money, given that the school’s operating budget recently made up about 44 percent of the town’s overall budget, she said.

Costello, who attended the meeting, said the AEA has taken a “position of opposition” against the charter school proposal. She encouraged officials to fight the STEAM plan.

“It’s far from a done deal, and I think it’s up to all of us — and I include the AEA,” she said.

Costello highlighted the city of Brockton, where she said the community “twice defeated commonwealth charter schools” by local grassroots organizing against the proposal.

Officials also suggested that a charter high school wouldn’t necessarily be popular among Andover High students

“If a charter school’s going to be successful, then the product has to be better than what the public school can give them,” Selectman Brian Major said. “If the public school education is excellent, then the charter school isn’t going to be successful.”