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Orange to look at viability of buildings

Elementary school proposal sparks much discussion

ORANGE — The prospect of a new elementary school is opening up dialogue among residents and officials about the need and viability of all the town’s public properties. Over the next few years, school and town officials will look at how town-owned buildings match up with community needs — or not.

Town Administrator Diana Schindler said this overarching plan for town buildings needs to be “driven by the community not town officials.” She envisions a committee — made up of residents, school and town officials — that will assess the viability and usability of buildings in town.

“We need to look at what we need both now and in the future and what we’ve got in terms of buildings and properties … and how much it costs to maintain them.” Schindler said the town may want to sell, repurpose, consolidate or expand buildings that don’t meet town needs.

Repurpose or sell money pits

While the committee’s assessment may take a few years, she said a number of building issues must be addressed in the short-term. Some of the older buildings are money pits, requiring significant repairs. “We are just putting money into maintaining these buildings the way they are, not improving them.” She said the older elementary school buildings fall into this category.

Schindler added the proposed new school will create efficiencies by consolidating school resources and cutting costs by operating one rather than three schools.

As the committee develops a plan for other town buildings, it will keep an eye out for how town services can be consolidated under one roof. One new building, could house several services, such as a library and senior center, she said.

While “the emphasis is on consolidation,” Schindler acknowledged many town facilities will by necessity remain single purpose, such as the transfer station, airport, police station, and the two fire stations.

Expand when necessary

Selectmen decided earlier this week to explore the prospect of building a new elementary school. At the meeting, Mahar Regional and elementary school committee members acknowledged other town departments also want to expand.

Schindler said the library is poised to move forward to expand library floor space and improve accessibility. Library trustees received a waiver allowing them to operate a building that is not in compliance with federal disability laws. But according to Trustee Michaele Wright, “we will need to build a new building or expand the current one to have the space to grow our collection … and (to address) the moral and ethical issues of accessibility.”

Schindler said that some buildings, such as Town Hall and the armory are used for other purposes besides town business.

At an earlier meeting, selectmen discussed renovations so that Town Hall auditorium could be rented out as a performance and event space. A grant is available through the Massachusetts Cultural Council for such upgrades. Schindler said that the committee will take a look at whether the potential revenue for auditorium rentals off-sets the costs for upkeep and repairs.

“If not, we need to be clear that we want the money for that use…that’s what taxpayer dollars are going to pay for … not a senior center or more cops,” she said. Schindler wants to ensure a broad and representative group of citizens are engaged or given opportunity to engage in making such decisions.

Over the next few months, selectmen will discuss the need for a committee to develop an overarching assessment and plan for town buildings.

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