Orange selectmen back new school

Some residents argue for library expansion

ORANGE — Selectmen listened to different perspectives before deciding unanimously to let the state know they want to explore state funding for a new elementary school. The new school would replace three older schools that Orange children now attend preK–sixth grade.

School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod told selectmen that local news coverage had solely on focused on how a new school would benefit the school budget and program, but the proposed new school is part of a broader plan that town and school officials want to develop. “We need a unified plan for all the buildings in town. What can we afford? What do we need? What are our priorities?”

Conrod sees the submission of a letter of interest to the Mass. School Building Association as a first step in a multi-year process that will engage residents, school, town and state officials in dialogue about the project’s feasibility. The Elementary School Committee weighed in on the issue at their meeting last month and unanimously supported submitting the letter.

But Orange resident and Mahar School Committee Member Peter Cross argued that dialogue with community members should come before the letter is sent. “You will have a better chance of having ideas heard in a neutral atmosphere.” He said sending in the letter of interest “before you have those discussions puts you on one side.”

Cross argued that capital projects of the library and other departments have been postponed in the past when the new Mahar Regional Schoool was being built, and he wouldn’t want to see that happen again.

Library Director Walt Owens said the library put off an expansion project as Mahar expanded as well as during the town’s recent financial crises. According to Owens, library expansion is critical to allow access for people with disabilities.

“We want to meet the needs of all citizens, not just the ones who can get up and down the stairs.”

Conrod, who is also a Library trustee, agreed. “It’s almost more important to do the library, especially for people who don’t have kids in school.” But she emphasized she did not want ongoing dialogue to stall progress on consideration of the new school. “I don’t want to keep putting it off and putting it off and keep shoveling more money into the schools.”

She said more than $100,000 was spent recently on a new roof for Dexter Park, which was built in the 1950s. “We’re New England Yankees. We use duct tape creatively, but you can’t put a new roof on with duct tape,” she said after the meeting.

According to Conrod, one new elementary school would also consolidate operating and staff expenses, including repairs, utilities, as well as administrative and support staff, such as principals, cafeteria and janitorial staff. One new school could create efficiencies allowing money to be reallocated into “the real job of schools, which is educating children.”

Selectman Kathy Reinig pointed out that if officials do not submit the letter of interest this spring they may miss the opportunity to get in line for state funds for several years. According to Reinig, the state allows for schools to submit a letter of interest when they have available funds. There is no prediction, she said, when that application process will be open again.

While he initially expressed doubt as to whether Orange could afford a new school, Selectman George Willard said all residents should support education, not just those with children in schools. “When I was going through school, a lot of retired people paid for me. I don’t have a problem paying for the next generation.”

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