School Committee Stresses Partnership In Town Campus Plans

by Ryan Bray
The Orleans Select Board met jointly with the Orleans Elementary School committee Monday to talk about plans for a new town campus on Eldredge Park Way, where the town’s fire station and elementary school currently sit.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO The Orleans Select Board met jointly with the Orleans Elementary School committee Monday to talk about plans for a new town campus on Eldredge Park Way, where the town’s fire station and elementary school currently sit. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – What would a town campus mean for Orleans Elementary School? It’s too soon to know, but the question was front of mind for members of the town’s elementary school committee Monday afternoon.

In a joint meeting with the select board, committee members expressed support for the creation of a town campus on Eldredge Park Way. But there were also questions and concerns about what the committee might have to give up to make it happen.

School committee members expressed their desire to have a voice in helping plan for a proposed campus alongside the select board. Gail Briere, who chairs the school committee, asked that an agreement be drafted laying out the terms of a partnership between the two bodies going forward. The select board unanimously voted to draft the agreement.

“We want to figure this out,” said Michael Herman, who chairs the select board. “We just want to address and come to a solution on this together.”

Talk has grown around the town campus concept in recent weeks, as town officials work to site a new fire station, elementary school and potentially a third multi-purpose building to house recreation and other community needs.

The town has aged out of its existing fire station, which opened in 1987, and elementary school, the original portion of which opened its doors in 1956. And with limited available town land on which to site new buildings, the Eldredge Park Way tract where both buildings currently sit has emerged as a potential fit for all three proposed projects.

But there are questions over who would control the land and which parts, if a campus concept was to come to fruition.

“The town owns the land,” Briere said. “There’s no question about that. But the school committee has had care, custody and control of it for a long time.”

Town Manager Kim Newman said when officials were planning the existing school in the 1950s, the “intent” was likely there to give the school committee control of the land. But that was never made official, she said.

Briere also raised concerns about how plans for the multi-purpose building, which in discussions town officials have said could potentially house both a new elementary school and additional space for recreation and other programming. She said a legal determination is needed as to whether or not the town could bond for such a building if there are questions about who controls the land.

One option for creating a campus could be to subdivide the existing land between each proposed project. But Briere said the school committee’s first priority is to ensure it has the land it needs to accommodate the elementary school’s future needs.

“We just want control over the elementary school land,” Briere said. “And honestly I don’t know what could make that feel better.”

Town officials say a feasibility study is the first step toward better understanding what can and cannot be done on the property. An article is set to go before voters at the annual town meeting on May 13 seeking $150,000 for the study. If approved, Newman said the goal would be to come back to town meeting in May 2025 with specific design options for voters to consider.

“I have no idea where it goes, why it goes,” Newman said of specifics for a campus plan. “To me, that’s why you do a study.” School committee members asked to have input on language in the proposed warrant article summarizing the intent behind the feasibility study.

But the warrant article wasn’t the only thing on school committee members’ minds March 18. Alongside talk of a town campus has been discussion about a regionalization and efficiency grant that is being applied for to look at opportunities for more efficient operation of the Nauset elementary schools, including Orleans Elementary School.

Sasandra Roche of the school committee said talk of “regionalization” has created fear in some parents that through the grant process, the plan might be to do away with the school.

“It’s a little scary, and it’s a little scary for the people in this town that that might be a possibility,” she said.

But town officials pushed back on any talk of closing the elementary school, which recently was recognized by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as one of the 66 top performing schools in the state.

“It sounds scary, but what’s not being said is Orleans wants to keep its elementary school,” said Andrea Reed of the select board.

“There’s never been a discussion about not having a school in Orleans,” echoed Herman.

Select board members further said that the grant needs to be explored to help the region’s elementary schools operate in the most efficient way possible. As for talk of a school closure, that would require significant input from the four district towns of Orleans, Brewster, Eastham and Wellfleet, board member Mark Mathison said.

“Nothing is going to get done until and unless the select boards in those four towns agree to do something,” he said.

Select board members reinforced their desire to move ahead on the town campus concept alongside the elementary school committee and Nauset school officials. Herman noted that better communication and cooperation with school officials is among his board’s goals for the new fiscal year.

“I think we’re at a point where we go together or we don’t go,” Reed said. That message appeared well received by school committee members, who expressed an equal willingness to work together cooperatively.

“The town has needs. The school has needs,” Briere said. “This could be a win-win for everyone.”

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