EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 13, 2013

Andover School Committee members spar over possible conflicts of interest

By Dustin Luca
dluca@eagletribune.com

---- — ANDOVER — Citing “potential or perceived” conflicts of interest, the chairman of the School Committee is calling into question fellow member David Birnbach’s involvement as a leading proponent of a proposed charter high school in town.

In a four-page letter to Birnbach on Wednesday, Chairman Dennis Forgue said he wants to be “clear about my concerns about possible conflicts of interests and obstacles to the efficient performance of the School Committee’s duties” as Birnbach lobbies for the creation of the STEAM Studio Charter School.

Birnbach shot back yesterday, responding in a letter to Forgue that he consulted with the state Ethics Commission for guidance shortly after the STEAM Studio team submitted its prospectus to the state Department of Education. The Ethics Commission in early August provided Birnbach with a set of guidelines, which he shared with the superintendent and School Committee, he wrote.

Birnbach told Forgue he looks forward to continuing to participate in upcoming School Committee meetings.

“I plan to follow the state Ethics Commission’s guidelines and I will continue to advocate for what’s best for all public school students in Andover,” the four-term School Committee member wrote.

At a meeting last night, concerns with Birnbach’s ability to put his School Committee responsibilities first over those of the charter school played out further when he was removed from two board subcommittees — facilities and budget.

Member Barbara L’Italien 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.

Forgue, meanwhile, said he isn’t alone in his concerns about Birnbach’s dual role. He said the questions he raised in his letter to Birnbach — which he called a follow-up to a discussion the two had last week — “came from a range of different sources.”

“They weren’t just mine,” he said.

School Committee member Annie Gilbert last night 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 discussion his team’s proposal.

However, Forgue’s allegations that Birnbach contacted high school faculty on school premises “to discuss the charter school proposal, solicit their support and possible involvement” drew a heated response from Birnbach.

Birnbach denied 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 also argued that Birnbach’s continued communications “in your words, as a private citizen” to the School Committee 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 the communication he has had with the School Committee on the charter school proposal “as a courtesy” to keep members informed.

“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 was opposed to his removal from the budget subcommittee last night, he ultimately voted in favor of removing himself from it temporarily until the state decides later this month whether STEAM Studio’s proposal will advance in the consideration process. Ten applications have been submitted to create new charter schools in the state.

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 requested in his letter to Forgue 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.