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3 schools into 1

Just one elementary school for Orange? That may be an idea whose time has finally come.

At least there are people in town who see that at this juncture, the existing setup with three elementary schools makes little sense beyond sentimentality.

No one can say that the three existing schools — Fisher Hill School, Dexter Park School and Butterfield School — haven’t served the town well. But there are compelling reasons for the town to consolidate the elementary school system into one new building.

And every path comes down to money.

All three schools having been showing the wear and tear of time for years now, with the result being that district is having to pour more money into maintenance and renovations, essentially putting bandages on things in the hope that they hold together. Superintendent Michael Baldassarre characteristically put it bluntly: “They’re money pits.”

Repairs and renovations aren’t the only way Orange taxpayers aren’t getting the most bang for their bucks. Enrollment at all three schools doesn’t come close to capacity. The biggest issues are with Butterfield, where there are now 200 students using a building capable of housing 525 ... and Dexter Park has 200 students in a building built for more than 700. Only Fisher Hill is utilized to more than half of its capacity. But these low enrollments don’t necessarily translate into cheaper costs when it comes to running the building and utility bills.

And then there’s staffing. Having one school would allow for a certain amount of reduced staffing, particularly in the areas that are not directly linked to the classroom. “Instead of three principals, we’ll have one principal; instead of three cafeteria directors, we’ll have one,” Baldassarre told The Recorder.

The flip side of this is the money involved in the construction of a new school. As it turns out, financial conditions are at a point that could prove quite favorable for Orange. The superintendent expects that the state would cover about 80 percent of the money needed for building an elementary school, leaving the town to cover the other 20 percent. While 20 percent of the cost for building a new elementary school is no small amount, such an investment at this time will allow the town to see savings that are eluding the town now.

At the very least it is a conversation that the community needs to have.

It’s good to see selectmen support the step of sending a letter of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Whether this idea becomes a reality in the near future, it is definitely worth exploring now.

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