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North Stonington — In a divided vote Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen moved a nearly $47 million school building project forward another step toward a town referendum.
Selectman Bob Testa, the sole dissenting vote, expressed concerns with undertaking renovations of all the district's school facilities following a presentation of the project by Superintendent Peter Nero and architect Rusty Malik of Quisenberry Arcari Architects.
The plan calls for a new gymnasium/auditorium on the north side of Route 2, while the old gym and central office could be used for municipal programs.
An additional 30,050 square feet of space would be tacked onto Wheeler Middle School/High School, with the entire renovation of the school costing about $28.85 million. The town's share of the cost could be as low as $16.22 million or as high as $20 million, depending on how much the state reimburses the town.
Additions to Wheeler would include new science labs, a new cafeteria and kitchen, a secure main entrance and space for the music program. The lower level of the building would house the middle school, while a second floor would house the high school.
The renovations of North Stonington Elementary School would include 11,700 square feet in additions and would cost $18.14 million, with the town paying $11.25 million for its share.
Burdening taxpayers with the $46,990,000 project — with the town shouldering less than half of the total cost thanks to state reimbursement — could affect the town's ability or willingness to fund the education budget down the road, Testa said. He noted that the town will also be paying for a $6.36 million emergency services complex voters approved last summer.
"If we can't properly fund (Nero's) budget and support it, that's gonna hurt," he said. "That's gonna be a problem."
Testa, who was chairman of the Board of Education before taking his selectman seat last fall, added that he believes the quality of a school building doesn't affect the quality of the education of its students.
Nero emphasized the money the town has already lost by delaying the renovations for more than a decade, during which time building code has become stricter, construction materials costs have escalated and the state reimbursement rate has declined.
The facilities, many of which are more than a half-century old, present a litany of safety, health and structural concerns, Malik said, including poor ventilation, Title IX issues and noncompliance with multiple state building code requirements.
And even more than concerns with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' upcoming visit — the accrediting body that placed Wheeler Middle School/High School on a warning list in 2008 — Nero said the project would address "frightening" security issues, including the schools' proximity to a busy access route to two casinos.
The discussion wound down amid multiple calls from audience members, including some parents and Wheeler alumni, for the selectmen to allow taxpayers to decide for themselves.
The Board of Finance will hear the same presentation on the project on Wednesday.