WALLINGFORD — Parents and educators who responded to a study on the future of local schools this week expressed a range of opinions, including opposing views over consolidating the two existing high schools, Lyman Hall and Sheehan, into a single new building on the grounds of Lyman Hall.
The Board of Education held two public forums on Wednesday, one in-person and one via Google Meet, to gather input on the facilities study.
Last October, Silver Petrucelli and Associates architects presented a report that outlined options for town wide improvements to the public schools, including consolidating the high schools in one building vs. renovating the two existing buildings.
At the virtual forum, Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi responded to concerns from the public over consolidating the two high schools into one new building. The concerns included students having opportunities to join sports teams, class sizes , the future of staffing and why Lyman Hall High School is the site of the new building.
Regarding sports, Bellizzi responded that the district would have more of an opportunity to increase sports selections.
“We would be able to consider offering wrestling and gymnastics, boys volleyball and we’d potentially be able to expand the freshman and the JV teams with hockey, lacrosse, soccer, tennis, field hockey, volleyball and cheerleading, just to name a few,” Bellizzi said. “I do think there would be an opportunity for us to expand some of those as well.”
Bellizzi said that Lyman Hall has the vo-ag center, which needs to be functional until 2028, according to the state. She said the town received a permit and funding in 2008 and the building needs to be functional for 20 years so the district doesn’t face penalties.
At the in-person meeting, board member Michael Votto touched on this as well, saying that former Superintendent Salvatore Menzo and members of the previous Board of Education did look for a location other than Lyman Hall, but found there was nothing in the center of town that would accomodate a school with all the space requirements for parking, fields and more.
Bellizzi emphasized that class sizes will not change if the high schools combine, as board policies state that class sizes cannot exceed 25 students.
If the district combines the high schools, Bellizzi said that the school would have enough staff members to continue to create a community and foster relationships with students. However, she couldn’t answer whether or not the district would have to lose staff members if they decided to combine the high schools.
“I think we’d have to look at once the board makes a recommendation to Town Council and then decisions are ultimately made about the specifics in terms of programming that would be offered and then what staffing needs we’d have based on that,” Bellizzi said.
At the in-person forum that took place Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Sheehan High School’s auditorium, a few educators in the district spoke about their opinions and thoughts regarding the future of the schools.
Anne Varrone-Lederle, president of the Wallingford Education Association (WEA) and a Moran Middle School teacher, spoke about how the WEA members took a survey regarding the facilities study. Varrone-Lederle said 42% of the members participated in the survey.
Over 60% of the respondents said that they would like to keep two high schools, with around 49% saying that the district should renovate to new, and just over 20% saying that the district should make basic improvements to the schools.
“At all levels, it was highly recommended that we renovate to new, more than just basic renovations and consolidation,” Varrone-Lederle said.
In regards to the middle schools, Varrone-Lederle said there were concerns about air conditioning, HVAC and having enough plugs, so renovating the two schools as new is a preference from WEA survey respondents.
Around 62.5% of the respondents said that both middle schools should be renovated as new, with over 57% saying the elementary schools should be renovated as new as well. Transportation also came up, especially if the high schools combine into one building on the Lyman Hall property.
“Intersections, roads, capacity to handle traffic in that area also was a concern from two or three different people,” Varrone-Lederle said.
Joe Corso, principal of Lyman Hall, said he is “team one high school.” He shared that right now Sheehan High School has 736 students, while Lyman Hall has 941 students. He added that enrollment at both high schools will continue to drop. As a result of the diminishing student enrollment and interest, Corso said that Lyman Hall lost its auto shop, business capstone courses, a theater course and some AP courses.
“If we were to combine the two schools because we work very closely together and we combine those numbers, both the students at Sheehan and Lyman Hall would have been able to have that class this year,” Corso said.
Corso then addressed the idea of renovating to new, saying that he did not believe it would change the square footage of the classrooms.
“Our classrooms are too small size-wise,” Corso said. “... We do not have the facilities that we need to in order to provide the best possible instruction to our students.”
When it comes to giving children the chance to participate in extracurricular activities, Corso pointed out that the band and the theater departments have seen a drastic decrease in participants. Therefore, he said if the schools combine, these extracurricular activities will have the ability to bounce back.
“No student would lose an opportunity to participate in band or theater,” Corso said. “Our theater program has been hurting in recent years and not all of this is because of COVID. A lot of it is because of the decrease in enrollment. This would give us an opportunity to put on multiple shows and provide kids with opportunities.”
Corso said that athletic opportunities are limited right now at Lyman Hall since he said “I have the smallest gym in the state of Connecticut and I only have one.”
Lastly, he addressed the rivalry between Lyman Hall and Sheehan, which is the staple of the annual powder puff game.
“The powder puff game is great, but we can’t make decisions about the academics and the futures of our kids based off of a rivalry that is fantastic but I promise you we can find another one,” Corso said. “... We can get creative and maybe have seniors play juniors or the east side seniors play the west side seniors, but there are ways for us to continue with some of those traditions and still provide the students of Wallingford the education they deserve.”
Michael Tyrrell, physical education teacher at Sheehan High School, said if the district pursues a new building, there should be teacher input.
“One of the issues that I am having is that teachers aren’t being asked, ‘Does this facility work? What can be better?'” Tyrrell said.
Justin Marciano, assistant principal at Sheehan High School, was the last educator to speak at the in-person forum, and said that the new building needs to accommodate student enrollment that will fluctuate over the years.
“Wallingford is a very transient community and what I mean by that is people are moving in and moving out all of the time,” Marciano said. “Our numbers go up and our numbers go down.”
Bellizzi said there will be a meeting on Feb. 6 that will include facility members, Stein and his team, central office administrators with the Office of School Construction Grants and Review to go over the facilities study. Raccio said they expect to make a suggested recommendation to the Town Counctil following that meeting.
“From there, it goes to the Town Council … We can take it so far, turn it over to the Town Council, work with them. At that point, I presume the Town Council or the Mayor would probably put together a facilities committee, but we don’t have the power to go out to a referendum to see how every community member feels about this,” said Tammy Raccio, board chairperson.