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School districts ponder future

ORANGE — Now that the superintendent is leaving, school committee members from Orange, Petersham elementary and the Mahar Regional school districts have been forced to think about whether they want to continue to join forces or go back to their old, separate ways.

Orange Elementary School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod said all three school committees have weighed a variety of options, and decided it was best to continue as a consolidated district with shared central office and other administrative roles.

Superintendent Michael Baldassarre will resign at the end of the school year to lead the CASE Educational Collaborative in Concord. He was superintendent of Mahar for four years before the district consolidated with Orange and Petersham elementary school districts in the fall of 2011.

The initiative to share central office functions was intended to create a more continuous K-12 curriculum, as well as cost-efficiencies. These two goals were largely accomplished, according to Conrod.

“For all the grumbling I hear about consolidation, it all mostly boils down to people feeling we need more local control. ... But having a shared central office did more good than harm,” Conrod contended.

She said that “If we went our separate ways, what financial burden would that put on Orange?”

According to Conrod, Orange, with its ongoing fiscal challenges, would be hard pressed to hire its own superintendent, as well as separate cafeteria, special education, and technology directors.

She added there are critical educational benefits to sharing certain services, such as special education. “It makes so much sense to have an aligned SPED program.” According to Conrod, consolidation of these services has significantly increased continuity of special educational programs as students transition from elementary to middle school.

Mahar Regional School Committee Chairwoman Cara Deane said regional school committee members were initially concerned about consolidation as so much central office staff time was spent on the elementary level rather than at Mahar.

Deane said that while some people have told her Mahar School Committee “shouldn’t worry about the elementary schools, those feeder schools give us our children.” If academic problems are rectified in early on, she said, students will be more prepared for a successful career at Mahar.

The school committees concluded that given the time frame, it was best to hire an interim superintendent. “At this time of the year, if we started looking for a new superintendent, we would not get high quality applications,” said Deane.

Earlier this month, they agreed to hire Tari Thomas as interim superintendent, who has worked as assistant superintendent for elementary education in the consolidated school system since 2011.

Thomas said she is “honored and excited to be building upon the work Michael Baldassarre started with the consolidated district.”

“We feel she’s perfect,” said Deane. Conrod added Thomas contributed to the improvement of Orange elementary school finances and to the development of a K-12 curriculum aligned to state standards and continuous across the grades.

She agreed Thomas “is more than qualified to be an interim superintendent.” As a first time superintendent of the consolidated district, “she’ll need polish … but we’re all getting our feet wet together.”

Thomas’s performance will be reviewed by all three committees next December.

If all goes well in the review, and Thomas is interested in continuing, “she will have a leg up on the competition” to become the next superintendent. A formal search will begin soon afterward whether or not Thomas is an applicant in the process.

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