Orange First Selectman James Zeoli spoke at the March Board of Education meeting, sharing his thoughts on proposals before the General Assembly that could affect Orange schools. “Some questionable plans have been submitted in Hartford,” he says. In response, Zeoli has spent time in Hartford, testifying and submitting testimony. He has met with state and local government officials about three bills that have been submitted regarding regionalization or consolidation of schools that have stimulated a lot of interest, not only locally, but across the entire state.
“I’m very concerned and I think we should leave our schools as they are. It has worked well, it is funded well, and we have 100% control of what we do for our children in Orange,” he says.
The First Selectmen of Orange, Woodbridge and Bethany and the finance directors of Orange and Woodbridge have also met to discuss the possibilities. “Woodbridge is very short of space at their school and they are very much advocating for teaming up,” Zeoli says. “I don’t think that would be our wisest choice at this point.”
He says he has heard a great deal of input around town, whether it was publicly on Facebook, via email, phone calls, or running into residents around town, and only two people told him it was a great idea to regionalize. An overwhelming amount said that they like the school system the way it exists today. “When soliciting input, I asked them to keep it clean and non-political as this is something that effects the whole town,” Zeoli says. “But there’s more to it than meets the eye and that’s what concerns me.”
Connecticut General Assembly Bill 457, a one-page bill, would require certain small school districts to create new or join existing regional school districts. Since this bill affects districts with fewer than 2,000 children, Zeoli says it would not affect Orange. Over 3,700 pieces of testimony were submitted in addition to many people who testified, according to Zeoli. Bill 738, submitted by Senator Martin Looney, set regionalization according to the state’s probate districts and would combine Orange and Milford, Woodbridge merging with Ansonia and Derby, and Bethany joining with Hamden.
“Both of the other Amity town leaders were fearful that this would happen, but it’s not going to happen because we already have a regional school system,” Zeoli says. Orange currently pays just over half of the Amity budget with Woodbridge contributing 30% and Bethany 20%.
Bill 874, a 32-page document, is the one to keep an eye on, he says. “That bill creates a committee made up of a lot of people, representatives of peoples’ choices. Their task is to do a study and come back with a conclusion for something that could be implemented around 2021-2022. Right now, it’s just forming a committee, but that’s the one to keep an eye on,” he says.
“Members of the Board of Education have done their part to let it be known that they like things they way they are. Selectmen have done our part to express what we like,” Zeoli says. While potential cost savings is the driving force behind the proposals, he doesn’t believe that there will be much savings at all.
“They’ve said that if we consolidate, Orange wouldn’t need a superintendent, a business administrator, or other upper administrative people. But how many assistant superintendents do you think Dr. Byars would need to oversee this whole umbrella?” he says, adding that additional people would be needed for development of curriculum, programs, special needs and facilities. “Jim Saisa, the facilities director for Amity—would he be able to oversee a K-12 district by himself, or would additional people be needed to oversee Orange’s four buildings plus Bethany’s buildings and Woodbridge’s, which is in need of expansion and renovation?” he says. “They’re saying there would be great cost savings, but I’m not buying it at this point in time.”
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent