By Dustin Luca
---- — School Committee member David Birnbach this week said he intends to continue serving the students of Andover amid conflict of interest concerns raised over his involvement in a charter high school proposal in town.
In response to questions last week by School Committee members over where his interests lie, Birnbach said he intends to stay the course. He rejected a request to consult again with the state Ethics Commission regarding his role with the proposed STEAM Studio Charter School.
Saying he already sought the state’s guidance last month when his team’s proposed charter school was first announced, the four-term School Committee member said he sees no need for further clarification.
“I have a very clear set of guidelines that have been conveyed to me in writing by the state Ethics Commission,” he said. “The guidelines are clear, they’re concise, and I reached out to get guidance proactively.”
Birnbach added he intends to continue to “advocate for what’s best for all public school students in Andover.”
Last week, School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue in a four-page letter to Birnbach cited “potential or perceived” conflicts of interest with his role on the school board as he lobbies for the creation of the STEAM Studio Charter School.
Other School Committee members joined Forgue last week in registering concern with Birnbach’s dual role and potentially competing interests. At a meeting that at times grew volatile, Birnbach was removed from serving on two subcommittees.
Member Barbara L’Italien, a former state representative, said she had “a big problem” with Birnbach serving on the school board’s budget subcommittee in light of the loss in funding for Andover public schools that would result if STEAM Studio gets the go-ahead from the state.
Under the funding formula, $15,000 per student of town education funds would be redirected to the charter school, which is proposed to enroll a maximum of 450 students from ninth through 12th grades.
“If $15,000 per student walks out the door and goes to the charter school, depending on 100 students to 400, we’re talking about an impact of $1.5 million to over $6 million to this school budget,” L’Italien said.
School Committee member Annie Gilbert echoed some of Forgue’s concerns.
“While I believe completely that you have the best interest of the Andover Public Schools’ students in your heart, I don’t question that, I think that there is an inherent conflict in the duality of the roles,” Gilbert told Birnbach. “I’ve heard from an enormous number of people who have said, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me.’”
In his letter, Forgue requested that Birnbach go back to the Ethics Commission to seek its opinion on several specific issues — including serving on various school board subcommittees, advocating for the charter school in communications to the School Committee and contacting Andover High faculty to discuss his team’s proposal.
However, Forgue’s allegations that Birnbach contacted high school faculty on school premises to discuss his proposal and “solicit their support and possible involvement” drew a heated response from Birnbach.
In a written response to Forgue, Birnbach shot back, denying he acknowledged contacting faculty at the high school to advocate for STEAM Studio — as Forgue asserted.
“I have not solicited AHS faculty support, nor have I sought out their involvement. Your claims are inaccurate,” Birnbach wrote. “Given my role as a School Committee member, I have consciously avoided having interactions with Andover High School faculty.”
Forgue this week said he plans to respond to Birnbach’s concerns and talk to him about the high school faculty issue for further clarification.
Forgue also argued that Birnbach’s continued communications to the School Committee “as a private citizen,” as Birnbach has classified them, also created the appearance of conflict of interest.
In response to Birnbach’s initial inquiry, the state Ethics Commission said state law prohibits him from appearing before the School Committee on behalf of the charter school team. The commission further said that Birnbach “should not sign letters, applications or any other type of submission that the team makes to the committee.”
Birnbach characterized his communications with the School Committee as for informational purposes only.
“As a courtesy, I have sent occasional emails to School Committee members and the leadership team to keep you in the loop regarding the charter school team’s upcoming public meetings and progress,” Birnbach wrote to Forgue. “As stated several times previously, STEAM Studio Charter School would like to collaborate with the Andover Public Schools — to benefit all Andover students.”
While Birnbach opposed being removed from the budget subcommittee last week, he ultimately voted in favor of a temporary departure until the state decides next month whether STEAM Studio’s proposal will advance in the consideration process.
The School Committee also voted 4-0-1, with Birnbach abstaining, to remove him from the facilities subcommittee since it is studying space issues at Andover High, among other district needs.
“Due to the subcommittee’s review of the possible expansion of the Andover High School and the charter school’s intent to reduce the number of students at AHS, you and I both believe that a conflict of interest exists,” Forgue wrote in his letter to Birnbach,
Birnbach also sits on the calendar subcommittee, and he’s listed as a resource to the communications subcommittee. He will continue in those roles.
Meanwhile, Birnbach said “to allay any concerns” about possible conflicts of interest with the public, he has requested that all School Committee and subcommittee meetings be audio- or videotaped.
“This will ensure that there is a public record of all our discussions,” he wrote to Forgue.
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STEAM Studio Charter School, a STEM and arts- and design-enhanced school for a maximum of 450 students in grades nine to 12, is one of 10 seeking approval in the state.
In early October, the state will select any number of the proposals to submit formal applications for consideration, according to JC Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Those invited to apply will have until Oct. 25 to complete their paperwork, after which there will be a public comment period and a full review and interview process, Considine said.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on the applications in February.
While restrictions may be established for how many charter schools can operate in any one community, there are no limits on how many charter programs may be approved each year by the state, Considine said.
In addition to veteran School Committee member David Birnbach, the team behind STEAM Studio includes various technology- and education-focused professionals.
ON THE WEB
For the complete text of letters exchanged between School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue and School Committee member and STEAM Studio proponent David Birnbach, see wwww.andovertownsman.com.
David Birnbach Response to Dennis Forgue
Dennis Forgue Letter to David Birnbach