The School Committee debate became the “main event” last week when several of the candidates challenged each other on the high-priced teachers contract and reduced student performance.
The four candidates running for two, three-year seats on the School Committee — incumbent David Birnbach and challengers Susan McCready, Kim Sousa and Ted Teichert — and two candidates running for a single, one-year seat — incumbent Annie Gilbert and challenger Paul Properzio — faced off in the forum hosted by the Service Club of Andover.
The School Committee candidates will again meet on Monday, March 16, in a forum presented by the Bancroft Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and the League of Women Voters of Andover and North Andover. The forum will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Bancroft School cafeteria. League member Heather McNeil of North Andover will serve as moderator.
A question from the Service Club’s moderator Brad Heim about the high school’s reduced ranking in Advanced Placement exam scores led to one of the most colorful exchanges of the night last week.
Birnbach said Andover High School is one of just two schools in the state that forces students to take an entire, year-long course in just one semester, a practice known as “semesterizing.”
“Every district (except Andover and Cambridge) has moved to full-year schedules,” he said. “We made a commitment to that, but the change has been pushed back 20 months. ... Do you realize the deficiencies with that? We need a greater sense of urgency. This is not a dress rehearsal for our kids.”
Applause — the only one of the night — broke out in the standing-room-only crowd.
Birnbach’s remarks were in response to comments by challenger McCready, who said that while she understood where he was coming from, “I feel strongly, we need to listen to the people on the front lines ... for the children. I come from a high-tech background, where things move quickly. But things don’t move that fast in this space.”
Birnbach said he had reached out to districts across the state seeking input on the schedule change, which he said has been delayed for nearly two years. He said he spoke with administrators in Lexington, Lincoln-Sudbury, Newton, Wellesley and other similar districts and “they were all surprised” Andover hadn’t made the change.
Gilbert said the school ranking isn’t the only metric to look at, noting that participation in AP classes at Andover High School is the third-highest in the state. She also said there are other things students need to be good at now.
“We are relying less on standards and more on collaboration and creativity,” she said. “Feedback from standardized tests is just one piece.”
Teichert, a former selectman, said the district needs to ask a simple question.
“Why are test scores going down?” he said, adding that per-pupil spending is among the highest in the state while the district ranks at 67th in AP scores.
When asked if the School Committee had given too much to the teachers in the last round of contract negotiations, Gilbert said that three years ago, negotiations with the teachers union were “very contentious” and “scorched-earth. It was a good outcome, but resulted in a loss of education” for students. She said the most recent contract led to some changes that will help students.
“I don’t regret the two percent increase,” she said. “It was comparable with what other districts were doing.”
Properzio agreed. “I don’t think it was giving too much,” he said.
Birnbach disagreed, saying he voted against the current contract because “it was rushed through with the least due diligence of any contract I’ve ever been involved with in either the private or public sectors.” He said the raises weren’t just two percent, but included step and track raises that in some cases led to teachers getting more than 10 percent raises. He said that money should have been spent on staff development and other projects that were of “greater benefit to kids.”
Sousa said she was “impressed with the negotiation process” and felt that “for the first time, we’ve gotten to a good place” with the teachers unions.
Teichert said the town did give too much to the teachers, particularly because it affects what the schools can do within the rest of the budget.
McCready said “there is always opportunity for improvement,” but “no value in going back and revisiting the issue.”
High school principal
The departure of Dr. Christopher Lord as principal of Andover High also prompted a lively debate, as the candidates differed on how his exit was handled by Superintendent Marinel McGrath and the current School Committee.
McCready said she thought the situation was handled well and that the schools were “in a good place now” with the new principal, Steve Murray, the former principal of West Middle School.
Birnbach agreed, although he said he was “disheartened” by Lord’s departure.
“The most important position in the district, aside from the superintendent, is the high school principal,” he said. “I’m excited Steve Murray is staying on. He will take the high school to the next level.”
Gilbert said that neither the superintendent nor the School Committee could discuss Lord’s departure due to personnel issues.
Sousa said there could have been more communication, but that information has been posted on the district’s website that explains the timeline of what happened.
“We are in a better place,” she said. “Steve Murray is great.”
Teichert, however, said he thought the situation was “not handled appropriately,” adding that Lord may not have been getting “all the right tools” to run the high school. “I’m not worried about Mr. Murray, but I want to make sure we give our principals enough tools to do the job,” he said.
Space, technology and P.E.
Concerns about overcrowding at the high school led to a discussion about a proposal to open a satellite campus for 200 students at an off-site location somewhere in Andover.
Birnbach said the traditional answer to overcrowding — building an addition to the high school — would be cost prohibitive, with estimates coming in at up to $25 million.
Instead, through “collaboration and brainstorming,” officials are proposing an “annex” that the school district would lease. The space would be built out to the district’s specifications for a fraction of the cost of an addition, he said.
Gilbert said the idea for the annex was embraced by teachers and staff. “There’s a lot of positive energy behind this,” she said. “It’s become a real catalyst for the whole district.”
A question about technology vs. physical education brought a variety of responses from the candidates.
Properzio said that “we don’t want teachers or students on (technology) overload. There has to be a balance.”
McCready said technology is a tool that also creates “opportunity for creativity.” She said she was happy that the schools had hired digital learning specialists.
Sousa said “physical education is just as important as technology” and that there are “a lot of innovative ways to incorporate physical activity into the classroom.”
Birnbach, who works as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the Media Lab there is working on a program that teaches math and physics through dance as a way to teach girls science and engineering.
“It’s not an either-or issue,” he said.