WALLINGFORD — With a standing room only crowd at the Town Hall council chambers, and another 400 people watching the proceedings online, it was clear the community has enormous interest in whether the town should close its two high schools in favor of one larger school that all students would attend.
"It was fantastic that so many residents showed up and expressed their viewpoints," Councilor Jason Zandri said Wednesday. "I always appreciate when residents get informed and get involved with the process because that's the only way that the process works."
At the meeting, Zandri said he could see the crowd overwhelmingly opposed consolidating Lyman Hall and Mark Sheehan high schools in favor of one larger school. But, he said, he wanted to hear from those who supported the proposal as well.
And on Wednesday he did. He got six emails from residents who support the proposal, he said. Up until the council meeting, he had only had two, along with 48 people who were opposed. Ten more people also expressed their opposition Wednesday, he said, increasing that total to 58.
"I need to hear from people from the other side, people who are indifferent and the people that support this is because I'm sure there are a lot of people who think, OK, the board has brought this forward and I kind of support that and I don't need to say anything, I don't need to say me too, I don't need to say plus one, they're just going to go off and do it," Zandri said. "All these residents aren't going to necessarily show up and say, me too.
"Now that there is an opposition to the direction, the people who do support one school for the myriad reasons that they do, they now need to step up, because for me this is not an action of a council dictating back to the Board of Education 'hey, I want you to do this instead.'" Zandri said. "They basically made their decision, they brought it forward. And I have residents saying 'don't spend my tax dollars this way.' And so I have to go between what the people want with their tax dollars and what the board is recommending as a direction being the professionals they are, and I have to reach a conclusion and I need input for that.
"I do expect that I will end up getting more responses, more thoughts and more concerns about everything - the tax dollars being spent, the children's education, the children's mental health and what is the best thing for the town of Wallingford," he said.
That amount of interest at Tuesday's meeting may have startled school officials there to present the plans to the council because there was nothing like that at the numerous meetings the Board of Education and its Facilities Steering Committee held leading up to its Feb. 28 vote in favor of consolidation.
"We have never had even a fraction of this interest at our meetings," school board Chairwoman Tammy Raccio told the council. "We have been as transparent as we can be with information in trying to get people to come to our meetings."
The board and the committee had numerous meetings, both during the day and in the evening and both virtual and in-person, Raccio said. "This is not the same turnout that was at our public forum. I understand that there is frustration, but to be honest, we have messaged and messaged and messaged that this was happening."
The school board made a motion to make a decision on whether to recommend one consolidated high school by Jan. 15, she said. "We didn't meet that deadline because of getting input from the public and the state delayed one of the meetings with us, so this has been an ongoing agenda item for months and months and months, and we have done the research for years," she said. "We talked about it month after month after month that is was coming up to a vote."
But many in the audience said they knew nothing about it until after the vote.
"If I had known it was before the board, I would have been there," Maria Mahon said of the BOE meetings. "I guess this is a lesson that we always have to be paying attention to."
Many were hoping to hear the council reject the consolidation proposal, and while the agenda item said "possible action," there was nothing to act on, Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni said.
"I have no motion before me," he said, which prompted Councilor Christina Tatta to make a motion that the council urges the board not to investigate consolidation any further. Her motion, and Councilor Craig Fishbein's second, drew cheers from the crowd, but the council rejected that motion.
"We have a lot of people here tonight, and we have procedures in this town, and to my knowledge no one has requested that this body do anything in any official manner,” Fishbein said. “Unfortunately people don't know the procedure." Raccio said the board wanted approval to go out for an architectural study of the Lyman Hall campus and its ability to accommodate a new school, but that was not part of its request on the agenda.
"There's nothing unusual about something coming from the Board of Education with discussion and possible action," Cervoni said. "The only requirement is that the administration make a recommendation if there is some financial impact, and that is not being sought tonight."
And the whole thing could be moot, Fishbein said, in light of the fact that in eight months there will be a new administration, council and school board elected.
Tatta's motion stemmed from her research into what other districts have done when faced with the same situation, she said. Enrollment projections can end up being wrong, she said, pointing to one district that built a new school that was too small by the time it opened, resulting in students attending classes in trailers outside the building because a farm had been sold and dozens of homes built on it.
"We know we have lots of farmland in town that they're trying to sell. I'm concerned that even if one of those farms sells that could be 100 houses," she said, noting that shortly after she bought her house, a nearby farm sold that resulted in dozens of new homes. "I'm concerned if we max ourselves out on a new consolidated high school, we will have no room for growth," she said.
She also questioned placing it on the Lyman Hall campus. "I don't think the neighborhood can handle" the additional traffic the consolidated school would bring, she said. "It's a tight residential neighborhood."
Zandri said Wednesday that he would like to see the question go to a referendum, but there is a procedure that needs to be followed for that to happen.
"Unfortunately we don't have a system in town that allows it to go directly to referendum. The charter doesn't supply for that," Zandri said. "If there is a decision, a vote, that the electorate doesn't like from the council, that is their kick off. They have a 30-day period to collect 10% of the signatures of the registered voters that voted in the last election — I believe that would be about 2,900 electors — and then it would force a referendum.”
"If we had a mechanism for it, I would be all for it," he said. "Other towns vote on budgets and major decisions. Their charters are structured for that. Ours never was. If ours was set up for a referendum, I would 100% be for people getting out there and voting."
Raccio said Wednesday that the board will likely meet next week to decide what its next move will be.
What there is no question about is that something needs to be done, Town Councilor Autumn Allinson said Wednesday.
"Wallingford needs to look toward the future and if we want to be a town that is known for top education, we need to invest in it," she said. "Right now our state standing on academics is low despite having low class sizes in most cases. If we want to be better, we have to do better. That means investing in our staff, kids and facilities at all grade levels."