Wallingford high school merger plan draws concern from residents, councilors

WALLINGFORD — Reaction was swift to the Board of Education's vote last week to recommend to the Town Council to consolidate the town's two high schools, building a new high school on the Lyman Hall High School campus and closing Mark T. Sheehan High School.

Opponents quickly organized on Facebook, creating a page, "Wallingford Citizens Opposed to One High School."  By Tuesday, it had more than 1,000 members and a slogan — "Wallingford Says No to One High School.

On Feb. 27, the Board of Education voted 8-1 to recommend to the council that a new, 300,000 square foot facility be built on the Lyman Hall site that is estimated to cost $216 million, of which $122 million the town would be responsible for after the state's 43% reimbursement rate. 

The school board's argument for the one high school is that enrollment is dropping, with only 59% of the Sheehan building currently being used. By consolidating the schools into one facility, students will have more options academically as programs offered at one school would then be open to all high school students, the board argued. 

It's also the cheaper option, they said. Renovating both high schools "as new" would cost about $20 million more and would likely get less state reimbursement.

While the Board of Education voted in favor of the one high school proposal, the majority of teachers who responded to a Wallingford Education Association survey feel otherwise. Of the 243 teachers who responded to the survey, 49% favored renovating both buildings "as new," 21% were in favor of making "basic repairs" to the buildings, and 29% supported consolidation of the schools, according to union president Anne Varrone-Lederle.

"We are not in favor of consolidating," Varrone-Lederle said, noting that when the issue arose in 2018, the union's sentiment was the same.

Fifty-six percent of teachers responded to the most recent survey. 

Parent Athena Riveria said her daughter has a rare allergy and because of that has a 504 plan, which ensures a student has equitable access to a learning environment. 

"Even with the two middle schools, the 504 many times has not been followed," she said. Her daughter will be a freshman next year, Riveria said, and as it is now, it's been difficult to get an appointment with the administration to review the 504 plan.

"I was given one date, and I was told if I can't do the 504 on that date then I almost didn't have any other option because they had so many to do that they can only give everybody one certain date," she said. "If they can't do these 504s and IEPs now with two high schools, how on earth are they going to do them with the one high school? How are we going to know that our children are getting the services they need? That's a point I haven't seen brought up and it's a really pivotal point."

The Town Council is expected to discuss the proposal at either its meeting March 14 or, more likely, on March 28. The agenda for the March 14 meeting had not been set as of Tuesday afternoon.

‘Major decision’

Council members are weighing the options and said they need to hear more before taking a stand.

"This is a major decision for our community. I am weighing all the benefits and the drawbacks of the proposed consolidation," Councilor Sam Carmody said. "I think it is essential that we hear from the members of our community, particularly those who this impacts the most. There will need to be opportunities for everyone to ask questions of the Board of Education and to express their opinions on this matter before the Town Council votes on how to proceed. 

"This is a big price tag — we will also need to carefully review the financial implications that this will have on our town," he said.

Town Councilor Joseph Marrone said he is more concerned for the quality of education students are getting, calling the proposal a "distraction."

"I am interested in what makes the most sense for the students, academically," Marrone said. "I have not heard much from the BOE to support how the consolidation will benefit students, other than a vague indication of 'equity.'  Districts like Milford have two high schools, fewer students and a lower budget. The one high school debate is a distraction from what we should focus on, which is poor test scores."

Councilor Vincent Testa, a teacher, said he's heard from residents who are both for and against the proposed consolidation.

"As to the input I’m receiving, a lot is from those opposed to the one high school proposal, which is understandable given there is an organized effort underway to prevent that," he said. "I’ve engaged online with the Facebook group opposed to the idea and everyone has been very respectful and open with me, which I appreciate. 

But, I have spoken with people in favor of the idea, as well," he said, "many of whom are educators and coaches, as I am. So, there’s no question the population is split on this. I am keeping an open mind on it."

Should the town go forward with the proposal, it will impact the town for years to come, Testa said.

"This is clearly a major decision with long-term educational and financial implications for the town. I’m trying to remain objective and consider everything," Testa said. "It’s important to remember that the BOE has the responsibility to make educational decisions and the Town Council has the financial responsibility to fund or not fund what they propose. This is a lot bigger than an annual budget, however, so it demands a more intensive review." 

"I believe that a precursor to the Town Council considering the project would be a recommendation by the mayor to the Town Council, and his request to fund," Councilor Craig Fishbein said. "To date, I have not heard from the mayor in this regard. However, if and when we get to that bridge, I look forward to discussing with the members of the Board of Education, and of course the mayor about their decision and his recommendation and request." 



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