Schools get supported by Orange Annual Town Meeting voters

  • Voters wear masks for an outdoor Annual Town Meeting at the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School’s football field on Monday evening. It was held outdoors, with people 6 feet apart, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • Voters wear masks for an outdoor Annual Town Meeting at the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School’s football field on Monday evening. It was held outdoors, with people 6 feet apart, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Staff Photo/DomenicPoli

  • Voters wear masks for an outdoor Annual Town Meeting at the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School’s football field on Monday evening. It was held outdoors, with people 6 feet apart, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Staff Photo/DomenicPoli

  • Patricia Smith, vice chairwoman of the Mahar School Committee, speaks in favor of amending the Mahar budget recommended by the Orange Finance Committee. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • Moderator Christopher Woodcock speaks at the podium at Monday’s Orange Annual Town Meeting as Town Clerk Nancy Blackmer looks on. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

  • Moderator Christopher Woodcock, known for starting Annual Town Meetings with corny humor, dons a horse mask as he tells three horse jokes at the start of the meeting. Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2020 3:11:22 PM
Modified: 6/16/2020 3:11:16 PM

ORANGE — A global pandemic and unconventional voting location didn’t deter civic participation Monday evening, as 376 voters showed up to Annual Town Meeting at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School’s football field to have their voices heard on a range of issues that included funding for Mahar.

Residents adopted a $4,618,582 budget for the joint middle/high school after Peter Cross, chairman of the Mahar School Committee, made a motion to increase by $339,722 the Finance Committee’s recommended budget, which was described as almost level-funded. Voters passed a $21,614,014.42 omnibus budget.

Finance Committee Chairman Keith LaRiviere explained the recommended budget had “virtually no changes” from the current fiscal year and the state requires a balanced budget. But Patricia Smith, vice chairwoman of the Mahar School Committee, said the presented figure would result in school layoffs. LaRiviere responded by saying he appreciates people’s concerns and passion but amending the budget would likely mean layoffs in most town departments.

“Can we do with fewer police officers? Can we do with fewer firefighters and EMTs?” he asked. “The highway department has six employees — how many of those do you want to lose?”

After the public voted to amend the figure, a voice vote called by moderator Christopher Woodcock to adopt the new budget numbers was not decisive. So the moderator required voters to raise the blue cards they were handed at the front gate to indicate if they were for or against the new figure. However, the result was not clear and Woodcock ordered a standing vote. But this had to be redone because the rows of voters were not orderly the first time around and an accurate count could not be obtained. After the second try, Woodcock announced the amended budget was adopted by a vote of 230 to 122.

The Annual Town Meeting had been rescheduled from earlier due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The football field was chosen due to its expansive space. Woodcock called the event a “unique and very important outdoor Town Meeting.”

By all accounts, the volume of voters was unexpected. The special town meeting preceding the Annual Town Meeting was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. but did not start until closer to 7 because it took some time for the two massive lines of awaiting voters, wearing masks and spaced roughly 6 feet apart for social distancing, to be checked in at the front gate. They were flanked by people holding signs in favor of increasing the recommended Mahar budget. The two women checking in voters said they suspected the throngs of people were the result of the school issues.

Voters also approved a necessary debt exclusion as part of the plan to build a three-story addition onto Fisher Hill Elementary School, expected to house all Orange’s elementary-age students for at least 50 years, and demolish Dexter Park Innovation School. The article was adopted by a 300-16 vote and now must be ratified at the polls at the school on June 22.

Dexter Park was built in 1951 and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a quasi-independent government authority, designated it in its lowest rating, a “Category 4” school, in 2006. Voters in 2018 approved funding a feasibility study to study the Dexter Park problem and yield options for repair or replacement.

Voters also agreed to appropriate, borrow or transfer from available funds the money needed to remove asbestos from Dexter Park and repair a deteriorating concrete floor there. This solution will remedy the problem for the remaining three to five years the building is anticipated to be used. Dampness in a crawlspace has caused pieces of the concrete floor to deteriorate and break off, and part of a reinforcement bar is exposed. He said the fix involves putting posts under the center of all the floor joists.

When it came to the final warrant article, the only petitioned one this year, voters agreed to authorize the Selectboard to dedicate the town parking lot across from the Community Clothing Center on West Main Street to “honor Mrs. Hazel Lackey for her decades of care and service to the citizens of Orange and surrounding towns.” A plaque paid for by volunteer donations was also included in the article.

Residents adopted the five articles, including one asking voters to transfer $83,211.14 from free cash to “Snow and Ice” to cover a deficit, at the preceding special town meeting.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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