Motion to slash preschool opposed

Orange passes budget at annual town meeting

ORANGE — While some tweaks to budget line items were approved at the annual meeting this week, tempers wore thin as the hour grew later and a major cut in school spending was suggested by a Finance Committee member.

Bob Anderson made the most drastic of all proposed changes to next year’s budget sometime around 10 p.m. Monday.

Speaking “as a private citizen,” Anderson got up from his seat and brought his microphone with him as he moved to the other side of the committee’s table, facing over a hundred Orange residents.

Anderson recommended slashing the Orange Elementary School by $200,000. He urged voters not to invest in preschool programs that money would fund.

From his experience as a father, Anderson said he understands “children don’t start coming together mind-wise until second or third grade.”

The audience erupted almost immediately in response. School officials and other residents murmured to those sitting next to them, expressing shock and disbelief at Anderson’s suggestion.

“We are legally obligated to provide preschool for our children,” said School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod.

She clarified in an interview after the meeting the schools are legally obligated to provide preschool to children with special needs. “But if we don’t expand preschool, many of our kids will not be ready to learn in kindergarten.”

Superintendent Michael Baldassarre said the district currently offers free preschool for some but not all students. He said the $200,000 necessary to fund a full-day public preschool program next year will be 100 percent reimbursed by the state the following year.

Investing in preschool, he said, “is the most fiscally sound thing to do ... it’s also the right thing to do. Contrary to what some people say, children’s minds start developing as soon as they are born.”

“We haven’t been doing what we should be doing for the children in this town,” said Conrod.

She contended Anderson’s amendment would “hold the school committee hostage” by not giving them the funds to appropriately educate children.

The time and place to debate the elementary school budget is at school committee meetings, which are open to the public, she added.

Chris Donelan agreed the school budget “is a School Committee decision, not a Finance Committee decision.” If the elementary school budget was reduced, he said the town would not meet the state minimum requirement for school funding, prompting hefty state fines.

When the town dipped below 95 percent of the minimum several years ago, over $100,000 was exacted in state penalties.

“What we’ve done to (the elementary schools) is immoral,” Donelan said, in apparent reference to recent budget shortfalls and the resulting layoffs and program cuts.

“All children have the right to a public education,” he added.

Town officials have been hoping to make 100 percent of the state’s minimum school spending requirement this year.

But Donelan charged the Finance Committee with “the worst kind of budgeting.”

Earlier that evening at a special town meeting, voters approved moving $135,000 into this year’s school budget, just two weeks before the end of the school year.

Anderson agreed the transfer request came too late and said he proposed making it in February. Due to delays in the budgeting process, school officials can do little more with the funds but “buy a bunch of iPads for kindergarteners.”

Anderson rescinded his motion.

In response to several budget amendments, Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith recalled the “many, many, many, many hours” the committee spent preparing the budget, and described the process members used to make cuts or give employee raises as being “fair … and across the board.”

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