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Worcester bans field trips to Old Sturbridge Village following state approval of museum’s charter school

The Worcester School Committee last month asked the state auditor, inspector general, attorney general, and ethics commission to investigate Old Sturbridge Village’s plans to use revenue from the school to subsidize the museum’s operations.Bill Greene/Globe Staff/file

Worcester Public School students will no longer go on field trips to Old Sturbridge Village starting next school year, a decision district leaders made following concerns raised about the museum’s financial relationship with a new charter school.

The Worcester School Committee unanimously voted on Thursday to have school administrators pick a different location for third-grade students to visit during the district’s annual Culture LEAP field trips. Local foundations fund the school field trips and spent about $20,000 annually for the visits to Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor history museum that recreates a 19th-century New England town.

School Committee Member Tracy O’Connell Novick said during Thursday’s meeting that the call to boycott visits to the museum initially came from the local teachers union, the Educational Association of Worcester, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. She added it did not make sense for the district to continue visits to Old Sturbridge Village after publicly calling for it to be investigated over concerns the museum would use the new charter school, Worcester Cultural Academy, as a source of revenue.

“We as an organization with a substantial budget…do have a responsibility to ensure that those resources are being used in means that are ethical, and to support activities and organizations that are ethical,” O’Connell Novick said.


She said students wouldn’t be deprived of enrichment activities but the district instead would choose one of the many other opportunities around the state that could support students’ learning about Massachusetts history.

James Donahue, president and CEO of Old Sturbridge Village, said the museum has a $15 million annual budget, so the financial impact of the School Committee’s decision to not take field trips there will be “insignificant” but said the biggest impact will be on the students.

“I’m disappointed by it,” he said. “I think it’s a shame. I think that it’s unfortunate that the students of Worcester are being used, in my opinion, as a political football by the School Committee.”


After the state Board of Education approved Worcester Cultural Academy’s charter application in February, the Worcester School Committee asked the state auditor, inspector general, attorney general, and ethics commission to investigate Old Sturbridge Village’s plans to use revenue from school to subsidize the museum’s operations.

Worcester school officials cited a letter in Old Sturbridge Village’s annual report last year in which Donahue said the Worcester Cultural Academy would not only help the museum reach more students in a new geographical area, but also “provide reliable, contractual revenue to the museum, safeguarding us against fluctuations in uncontrollable factors that impact admission revenue such as weather and public health.”

The museum, Worcester school officials wrote in their letter to the state agencies, would receive $1.7 million in management fees from the publicly-funded charter school over its first five years. Any use of management fees to subsidize the museum instead of the charter school would be an improper use of public funds, they wrote.

Donahue said none of the state agencies have notified him about conducting an audit of Old Sturbridge Village and Worcester Cultural Academy. He added the academy’s charter application and management contracts between the museum and schools were reviewed closely by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and said the “suggestion that there’s some kind of financial impropriety is bogus.”


Adria Watson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.