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Political Fault Lines Emerge at Budget Hearing

Political Fault Lines Emerge at Budget Hearing

Cultural and political divisions over race and sex education at Amity schools overshadowed the question-and comments portion of the Orange budget hearing April 21 at the High Plains cafeteria.  In fact, with eight of the ten speakers saying they would vote down the Amity budget, the chances of it passing looked bleak.  [The Amity budget referendum took place on Tuesday, May 3, past the Town News press time]

“Please stop being the moral police,” said Misty Barnes, addressing Amity School Supt. Dr. Jennifer Byars.  “Why does Region 5 need a full-time educator to promote DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)?” she asked, to applause from the audience.  Barnes, like a number of other speakers, felt that these issues should be the parents’ responsibility, rather than be taught in school.

Michele Tenney said her 14-year-old freshman was confused and insecure about his experience at Amity, while her two older sons, now in their twenties, remember their time fondly.  She said students recently were sent home with a gingerbread man cutout, with questions regarding gender.  “I am beyond disgusted,” she said, although she did not specify the problem.

Jude Toohey, referencing the historically low participation in Amity budget referenda, encouraged senior citizens to go out and vote no.  “A 5.3% increase is kind of crazy,” she said, referring to Orange’s portion of the increase.

Maryellen Holden spoke in favor of working more diversity into the schools’ curriculum.  Reading Black writers such as Toni Morrison rather than Hemingway or Mark Twain is not a big problem, she said.  “The point is, we do need a little more diversity in our curriculum,” to prepare students for a much more diverse world.  She encouraged the audience to keep the conversation open about these issues, and the school authorities to keep the information flowing, especially when it comes to sex education.

But to call a diversity coach a “Marxist agenda” as one of the speakers had done, is simply inflammatory, she cautioned.  “As much as we love – or don’t love – the America we grew up in, there are all kinds of things that are changing, and it’s gonna happen in Orange, too.”

School Supt. Dr. Byars, when asked about the DEI coach, said the district found that professional development in the area of equity and integration did not translate into the classroom.  The district wants to make its schools a welcoming environment, not only for students of different races, but also taking into account economic differences, disabilities, religious beliefs and more.  Even the fact that students hail from three different towns can lead to biased behavior.

She said the state Board of Education last year came out with position statements regarding culturally responsive teaching, and the district wants to make sure it addresses those issues with the appropriate sensitivity and appropriate instructional materials.

Social Studies teacher Peter Downhour has been named to fill the DEI coach role, and will be working with teachers at the high school as well as the two middle schools to devise lesson plans.  He will also collaborate with club leaders to develop special programming, such as in May for Asia Pacific American Heritage Month.

It’s a full-time position, but a part of it will be paid for with grant monies.  Eventually, though, the district will have to absorb the whole cost for the position.

As for the gingerbread man cutout, Dr. Byars wasn’t aware which questions had caused the uproar, but she said it is a common teaching tool in health ed class to explain the difference between terms such as biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

When asked about a recent incident where students reported seeing a swastika painted on a lunch table, she said that administration followed up by going over surveillance footage, but it couldn’t be established with certainty who was responsible.  Even so, the incident was reported to Woodbridge police, as is customary with any graffiti that targets minorities.

At the budget hearing, Selectman Mitch Goldblatt expressed disappointment that people were so upset about the school district working toward more diversity, inclusion and equality.  “It breaks my heart that this town, this school district has seen antisemitism, has seen racism, has seen homophobia and yet – people are rejecting ways to fix that problem, ways to look at them.”

The 2022-23 town budget, including that for the schools, will be presented again at the Annual Town Meeting on Wednesday, May 11, followed by the budget referendum a week later, on May 18.

If approved, the expenditures for town operations will increase by 1.35% or $341,826.  That number does not include road paving, which the Board of Finance was waiting to see if it can get grant funding for.  The proposed Orange Board of Education budget would increase by 3.06%.  The Orange portion of the Amity budget would increase by $1.3 million or 5.31%.

Overall, the budget will see an increase of $2.2 million, or 2.96%.

Thanks in part to a strong Grand List growth, in particular for motor vehicles and Business Personal Property, and a transfer of Amity surplus monies back to the town, the Board of Finance was able to lower the mill rate by a half a mill, from the current 33.25 to 32.75.

At the conclusion of the hearing, First Selectman Jim Zeoli announced that the town had signed up to delay revaluation of properties for a year.  It was scheduled to be performed this year.  He talked about continuing economic development efforts, such as the trailer park off the Boston Post Road, which is under contract for a medical building.

Zeoli commented on the new state initiative to equalize motor vehicle taxes for all towns by capping it at 29 mills.  To bridge the deficit that would arise for towns whose mill rate is higher, the state will reimburse those towns.  Orange, for example, is slated to receive $700,000 in the 2022-23 Fiscal Year.  “I guess the balancing idea is a good idea, but how many times will they send us the difference?” he wondered.

As for the comments received, he reminded people that the residents of the other BOWA towns may feel differently about the Amity initiative.  “Orange once was a racist community,” he said, remembering how Italians and Germans were shunned at one point.

“Dialogue is good, it’s great, actually, he added.  “Tonight was a good night.  People expressed openly their position.”

By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent

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