By Lorraine Connelly
In what I will call the “February surprise” that might impact the future course of education in Wallingford for decades to come, the Board of Education voted 8-1 in favor of combining the town’s two high schools into one consolidated building. In a town where committee votes are often divided along political lines, this constituted a rare moment of consensus. The Board of Education’s recommendation will now go to the Town Council for review. It was a gutsy decision.
The new building is slated to be built on the current Lyman Hall High School property and is estimated to cost roughly $216 million with the cost to the town after state reimbursement of $122 million. Says Tammy Raccio, Board of Education chair, “Over the past five years or so the BOE has been studying school facilities. We have met with the State and consultant multiple times. Additionally, we’ve held public hearings to share data, hear concerns, and gather questions. We also took feedback from surveys sent to residents (in their electric bills) and collected surveys at many locations around town. All information was considered.” Some of the driving factors in favor of one school include: expanded academic opportunities, declining enrollment, the condition of the existing high schools, and financial penalties of up to $20 million for renovating a school (Sheehan) utilized at only 59%.
No sooner was the Board’s decision announced than the court of public opinion began weighing in with residents who oppose the decision posting, “Wallingford Says No to One High School” on their Facebook pages. More heated, some comments suggested voting out board members who were in favor of the consolidation. For residents who are still on the fence with this issue, there is a very informative Restructuring Q&A document that has been shared publicly by the BOE which examines 16 issues with surgical precision: transportation, programming, site location, class size, cost savings, design, courses, enrollments, extracurriculars, staffing, timeline/process, health and safety, reimbursement rates, construction, social/emotional issues, as well as plans for elementary and middle schools. I think all can rest assured that BOE members did their due diligence considering every alternative, yet the public outcry continues.
The board’s decision was not arrived at lightly. Says longtime board member, Kathy Castelli, “I was honestly on the fence right up until the end. Once I had all the data and concerns in hand, I spent countless hours composing my thoughts based on all this information. This made the decision a bit easier, but by no means was this an easy decision. I realize the weight and gravity of this decision and the impact it will have on this town and most especially, the students of Wallingford for decades.”
The youngest board member, Rajan Doering, a 2018 Sheehan High graduate, says school allegiance did not factor into his decision, “As a board member, I needed to look at what is best for all students — not sentimental memories of my high school.” Doering hits upon an important point:sentimental memories and nostalgia may not ultimately lead to the best decision making. As Scott Monty, the first executive at Ford Motor Company to lead digital communications and social media, writes about nostalgia, “Progress and nostalgia are diametric opposites. Progress pushes us forward, sometimes into cold and unfamiliar territory, where we make decisions, we’re not comfortable with. We may eventually find our footing, but those first steps can be scary. Conversely, nostalgia keeps us rooted in the past. It tethers us to the familiarity and comfort that actions, repeated by rote, bring us over time. The danger is we might be mindlessly moored to ideas and practices, without considering alternatives.”
Many Wallingford residents may find themselves in unfamiliar territory when considering the prospect of a school merger, but we can find our way and emerge stronger. I speak from experience.
I attended the High School of Music & Art in upper Manhattan — a Gothic Revival structure colloquially known as “The Castle on the Hill.” When Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia established the specialized public high school in 1936, he said it was “the most hopeful accomplishment” of his administration. Our sister school, the High School of Performing Arts, located on West Broadway, was established in 1947. In 1984, the schools merged into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & The Arts, now located steps away from Lincoln Center. When the schools were combined there was some opposition to the loss of individual school identities, but no one can argue that the new facility isn’t better suited for current students. If Wallingford’s high schools do consolidate there will be creative ways to honor the storied histories of both schools, while creating greater educational possibilities for tomorrow’s students.
Nostalgia may tantalize us with pleasant memories, but it’s not the same as delivering an experience. “Having all of our resources in one building will enable us to provide a better education,” says Doering, and, I might add, a better experience for all involved.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.