To the editor:

She was distraught. Suddenly and without warning, all the plans she made with her elementary school-age child were demolished. After-school enrichment activities were now financially out of reach. The girl would instead be coming home from school in the dark, alone, letting herself in.

The cause was the Andover School Committee’s abrupt June 17 decision to scramble school start times, elementary schools not starting until 9 a.m.

For working parents this means trying to find before-school care, and if successful, paying for it. And the money has to come from somewhere, in this case repurposed from extracurriculars. Because of the committee’s rushed decision, this child, and many others like her, will have their learning days knocked later and will be walking home after sunset.

I live in Andover but am an outsider to town politics; maybe my views will resonate. I witnessed the distress of the parent who described this situation, and I speak out because of what else I saw at the June 17 meeting, which took place when many residents were away.

I saw an event that went down like a well rehearsed play: formulaic talking points by the four members present, who acted like friends at some insider’s club. I saw a group grown far too comfortable with each other, leaving me to wonder what happens behind the scenes.

Consider the committee’s stealth tactics. In 2019, a more open committee fostered a spirited democratic debate when it considered a different proposal to change start times, keeping the community informed. Not so now.

This committee quietly revived the start-time issue as new business on May 20, taking by surprise even the interim superintendent, who pleaded for time to think about the practicalities. They received a single public comment, by email. Not a soul appeared live. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was by design.

They then moved at breakneck speed. They made no specific proposal on May 20. But out of the public eye, they decided that the “leading scenario” would be what they ultimately adopted. They held this back until June 6, the day after their success at town meeting. They voted 11 days later, after school recessed.

It is hard again to escape the conclusion that the speed and timing were designed to sidestep public scrutiny.

In their haste, they disregarded their regulations, which empower them to set opening and closing times only as “recommended by the superintendent.” No such recommendation was ever made, publicly. The vote is invalid.

Consider also the committee’s weak approach. I accept that teens can benefit from more sleep, but true scientists study a problem with an open mind, so that the cure is not worse than the disease. The committee’s consideration of elementary school children was anemic at best.

Parents, including the one referenced above, spoke eloquently about the harm of shifting the learning times of young children, especially those already vulnerable or with learning differences. The committee’s public deliberations reveal they had no idea whether there would be a net benefit to the town’s children as a whole.

The committee relied on opinion data from two years ago; those new to town or whose children have since aged into the system are ignored in that data.

As a savings measure, the committee selectively sent an open-response questionnaire on June 6, but anyone with the link could respond multiple times, and the committee could not have studied 1,600 responses when the poll closed June 16 at noon. No reputable data scientist would consider this poll valid.

Finally, consider the committee’s disregard for consequences. Residents begged them not to make such a rash decision but to assess the practical effects.

There are hundreds or thousands of elementary-school children whose parents now need before-school care. Can the schools accommodate them? The committee had no idea—one swooned (on May 20) she was confident the town would make “magic” happen, little comfort to those affected.

I believe that this town deserves better.

We deserve a School Committee that makes its decisions in the light, not one that acts when it thinks no one is looking. We deserve a School Committee that faithfully follows the science no matter where it leads, not one that runs with blinders on.

We deserve a School Committee that listens to the community and whose members think independently, not one whose members think alike and smugly dismiss those with whom they do not identify.

The School Committee needs reform. To start, let’s break up this chummy club.

Nicholas Stellakis

Andover

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