89 students opted to leave Orange’s elementary schools last year

  • Fisher Hill School in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2019 11:12:11 PM
Modified: 9/13/2019 11:11:59 PM

ORANGE — Last year, Orange’s revenue stream took a $476,000 hit due to school choice.

In a town looking to adopt a new budget in November — all because revenues are not meeting expenses, and an override vote to make up the difference failed — that was a grim fact revealed by school Finance Director Michele Tontodonato to the Finance Committee this week.

According to Tontodonato, 89 students “choiced out” of the Orange Elementary School District last year. In other words, students eligible to go to school in Orange opted to go elsewhere.

Orange’s schools have about 600 students, and, with the state assessing $5,000 per student, the 89 students attending schools elsewhere represent a potential half-million dollars out of the town’s revenue.

According to Finance Committee member Kathy Reinig, when students “choice in” to Orange’s schools from elsewhere, that money goes to the School Committee to be used for educational purposes. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 30 students choiced in to Orange, giving the schools an extra roughly $240,000.

But, Reinig said, when students choice out of Orange, the money assessed is subtracted from the town’s revenue stream, not the schools’ revenue.

Looking at the state’s statistics, things are trending in the wrong direction when it comes to school choice in Orange. In the 2014 to 2015 school year, 64 students choiced out and 53 choiced in; in 2015 to 2016, 67 choiced out and 62 choiced in; in 2016 to 2017, 71 choiced out and 60 choiced in; and in 2017 to 2018, 80 choiced out and 44 choiced in.

In addition to the trend of Orange students leaving the district, total enrollment is declining, while enrollment of children in foster care, from homeless backgrounds or with special needs is increasing, Tontodonato said.

The state already shortchanges Orange by more than $3 million per year when it comes to special education by using an “assumed percentage” that calculates Orange as having 3.75 percent of its total enrollment in-district special education students. In reality, Orange had 159 such students last year — about 26 percent of total enrollment — creating, because of state mandates to fund special education, a roughly $3.5 million gap in funding the town must cover.

The declining enrollment; rising costs of special needs and the lack of funding from the state; increased costs of transportation as a rural district compared to urban districts; and increasing number of students choicing out are all negative financial impacts on the town.

However, the Finance Committee and Tontodonato spoke positively Tuesday night about the potential for change. Mainly, the idea of a new elementary school — technically a three-story addition to, and renovation of, Fisher Hill Elementary School — was touted as a way to keep students from leaving the district.

“What the superintendent and I have talked about is that we know that it’s that way now, but we’re hoping with the great things going on in the school, promoting that, and hopefully a new school building, it will bring some of them back,” Tontodonato said.

Hill International Inc., the company managing the town’s school building project, and architects at Raymond Design Associates are currently in the design phase for the Fisher Hill addition and renovation, which will ultimately render a single, preschool-through-sixth-grade school for all of Orange’s students.

The project will be funded at 80 percent by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, according to Hill International’s Martin Goulet, and a final schematic design will be presented to the state early next year. Then, voters will have to choose at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting whether to support the project.

Finance Committee member Tony Leger, in particular, said townspeople should support the new school building as a way to potentially boost revenue by keeping students from choicing out of Orange.

“Some of them are probably choicing out because the facility is poor, and some of them are choicing out because they don’t like the way things are working in Orange, which relates to everybody being split up and the facilities being poor and not focusing our money on the educational program of the kids,” Leger said.

Leger added that “if you want to turn Orange around,” then the focus should be on improving one of the town’s “bedrocks” — its elementary school.

Finance Committee member Kimberly Emond agreed, and said people who get jobs in the area will be more attracted to Orange if it has a new school.

“If they see this wonderful school being built, and that it can actually support their kids, that is what brings new families,” Emond said. “That is what brings tax revenue because they are going to buy a house.”

On Nov. 7, Orange will hold its Special Town Meeting, where the Finance Committee will recommend a total budget of $21,224,264.07, which depends heavily on the town’s “free cash” reserves to close a half-million-dollar gap between the town’s revenues and expenses, a gap in similar size to the money lost via students choicing out of Orange’s schools.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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