Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

January 9, 2014

Andover charter school decision should be delayed

The Andover Townsman

---- — Editor, Townsman:

This letter concerns the STEAM Studio charter school now being proposed for the Town of Andover. I recommend that the approval or disapproval of this application by DESE be delayed for a full cycle based on the rationale I outline below.

I am a longtime resident of Andover, had three children utilize the public schools in town and am a strong supporter of the school system itself, its rigorous academic programs and its undisputed long-term success. I am also the chairman of Andover’s Economic Development Council whose mission is to make Andover the best place to work and live in America (this, of course, includes the schools). I am a public school product myself, have a Bachelor of Science in math and hold two master’s degrees. My wife, who also holds a master’s degree, was a longtime school teacher in Lexington. So we are not innocent bystanders in this important discussion.

I am a strong supporter of the charter school concept itself, and have been pleased to see the charter school successes in Boston, other communities in Massachusetts as well as in deserving (primarily) urban areas throughout America. I empathize with the proponents of the proposed STEAM Studio charter school in Andover as we all wish to better prepare the next generation of participants in our economic society. We are all familiar with the “gap” that currently exists here in Massachusetts between applicants and job openings — which is particularly acute in the technology sector. Clearly we, as citizens and key arbiters of precious resources, must address this issue urgently.

However, in my judgment, the Andover citizenry has not yet had enough time to thoroughly evaluate this important choice now before us. There are three reasons why I believe this application should be delayed for a cycle to allow adequate examination:

1. Is there a gap between what the Andover Public Schools now provide (in the STEAM arena) and what a dedicated charter school might do? Yes, there is. But a careful analysis of efforts now under way and planned in the Andover schools can address that gap quite substantially.

Unlike some of the other less well-funded school districts in the commonwealth, Andover is very progressive and carefully blends the desire for well-rounded preparation with the more pronounced needs in the STEAM sector. Finally, the location of a vocational high school in town plus immediate access to other private schools locally affords our populace some excellent choices. Thus, the need appears to be not as great here, relatively speaking, as it might be in more deserving parts of the state.

2. Should the proposed charter school come into being in Andover, the budget impact for both the public schools as well as the general town operations would be severe as the charter school funding is now constituted. This is due primarily to the methodology behind the Chapter 70 aid supplemented by the Chapter 46 reimbursements. Time is necessary to understand the full impact of these financial changes and plan for a potential transition.

3. Andover is one of the last remaining Town Meeting communities where, essentially, all of the key decisions in the operation of the town (and the school district) are determined by the majority of the townspeople. That is the culture of the town. Due to the timing of the proposed STEAM Studio application, there has not yet been enough time to fully examine and evaluate the proposal by the vast majority of Andover citizens. It might well be that sufficient support resides in town to launch this new charter school, but our “socialization” of this issue has not yet been given time to work.

I understand fully that there is no “town vote” or other “official blessing” of the charter school operation; however, extra time would certainly allow more taxpayers in Andover to understand the proposal and its financial impacts and allow other voices to be heard. I believe that DESE would benefit from additional input from Andover given that this is such an unusual location for a charter school proposal.

My understanding is that DESE will give final consideration to the STEAM Studio application at its annual deliberation in February.

Given that the need in Andover — while important — is not critical, that the extensive budget impact of this proposal is considerable and not well-enough understood and that the general population of the town has not yet had an opportunity to fully assess the proposal, the delay of a year in evaluating the proposal should be considered.

Timothy L. Vaill

9 Bancroft Road