When Andover voters go to the polls, they'll choose leaders who will later make decisions affecting residents across the community.
The candidates voted into office will influence the lives of everyone from elders living on fixed incomes to students whose future depends on the education they receive in Andover schools.
Whether polls are open March 24 as scheduled or on a later date due to the coronavirus crisis, voters on election day will choose winners in two contested races — one for a seat on the Select Board and the other for a seat on the School Committee.
Parents seek school seat
Three candidates, all with children, are vying for the School Committee position. There would have been four candidates in the race if School Committee Chair Joel Blumstein had decided to seek re-election this year, but he chose not to run.
Those who are in the race say they have big plans for the School Committee.
Amy Hafensteiner, 35, has three children under the age of 7. She works as an executive recruiter at a biotech company. She's a supporter of the national anti-gun violence group, Moms Demand Action, and has marched on the Boston Common for women’s rights. She moved to Andover with her family in 2011, she said, so her children could attend the town's public schools.
Hafensteiner said she wants to bring her professional skills to the School Committee, in part, to help streamline the budget. She said she questions some of the committee's spending decisions that she says put the school district in a "bind." This year the budget was so tight that schools placed a hiring freeze on new teachers and staff.
"It just seems like there is a lot of spend(ing) in areas that perhaps we could take a closer look at, such as outsourcing needs and legal fees,'' she said. "I think my HR background would help get ahead of some of those costly needs so we can spend our money more strategically to help the teachers and students."
Hafensteiner added that she's been backed by the Andover teachers union and she's been talking not only to teachers, but to leaders in the community and students at the high school as the election approaches.
School Committee candidate Lauren Conoscenti, 41, is making her first foray into politics. Conoscenti, a mother of two, is the assistant director of Tufts University's Office of Institutional Research. She has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in psychology. While this is her first run for office, Conscenti has been involved in the school community for some time.
“I decided to run because I am involved in my community and I felt like I had done as much as I could in the things I had done at our schools ... I was looking for another challenge,” she said. “I have been on the South School Improvement Council, PTO, and I have been going to School Committee meetings and providing feedback for years.”
Like Hafensteiner, Conoscenti said she'd like to use her professional skills to help streamline the school budget.
“I am a data scientist and one of the things I am excited to have the chance to do is use my data visualization skills to create a public facing interactive dashboard with budget information that can help us better understand what our budget is,'' she said, "how we have been spending money, how we compare to other districts and how we compare over time.''
On the campaign trail, Conoscenti said she has been hitting the streets, holding signs, talking to residents and having coffee with people “every single week.”
Another candidate in the School Committee race is Shishan Wang, a father of three. He is a senior research scientist at Charm Sciences, Inc., a biotech company that creates food and water safety equipment. Wang got his Ph.D. in food science at UMass Amherst.
Wang said one of his goals if he is elected is to improve the math and science curriculum in the elementary schools. He said the STEM program in Andover's elementary schools must be adjusted to improve standardized test scores.
"We have to review the curriculum," he said, "... our STEM programs, they are falling behind."
Wang said that if he is elected, he’ll use his research abilities to increase the efficiency of the School Committee by researching the issues that come before the board before acting upon them.
2-person race for Select Board
In the race for the Select Board position, Laura Gregory, 52, the board's incumbent chair, is being challenged by a younger opponent — 21-year-old Stephen Prochniak. He is a student at UMass Boston studying political science and also a military police officer in the National Guard.
Before the coronavirus emptied many public spaces, Gregory was hitting the streets in preparation for election day.
"I have not been knocking on doors, but I talk to people when they are walking their dogs," she said.
Of her opponent, Gregory said although she appreciates Prochniak's passion for politics, he lacks the experience needed to serve on the Select Board.
"He is very enthusiastic and I think would be a great addition to many things in town. I am just concerned he doesn't have the experience to be on the Select Board at this time," she said. "And he is also a college student in Boston, and he has a worse commute than I do."
Prochniak said he understands why people may question his experience, but he's "not your average 21-year-old." Prochniak said if elected he will work to decrease the property tax rate in Andover.
"I believe I can bring a unique perspective to the board,'' he said. "As a military man, I can bring a steadfast discipline and dedication to my town. As a citizen, equally as concerned about our increasing tax rate as my peers, I can be the voice we need to slow that rate. The current board under Laura Gregory's leadership just voted to raise the tax 4.6% in a vote of 4-1, despite the concerns of our residents.''
Although Prochniak doesn’t have a home in Andover — he rents a room in a house — he said he’s focused on decreasing the town's property tax rate because of his long-term plans and the negative effects taxes have on the community.
“Andover is where I want to stay for the rest of my life,'' he said. "This town is my home, and it always will be. Just because I don't own property doesn't mean I don't see the heavy effect it's having on the people around me. Citizens, seniors especially, are struggling to stay in their homes. Many may be forced to move elsewhere. We have a tax bill well above the median for Essex County.''
In the election's uncontested races, Paul MacKay and Donald Schroeder are vying for two open Punchard Free School Trustees seats; Sheila Doherty is running for moderator; and Margaret O’Connor is running for a seat on the Andover Housing Authority.
Polls will be open on election day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.