North Stonington divided on school renovation project

North Stonington - Town and school officials went into Monday night's town meeting on the defensive for a $47 million school renovation project, armed with impassioned speeches and a pamphlet of colorful renderings one week before taxpayers will vote yea or nay.

Officials have repeatedly laid out the financial commitments that go along with the project - an estimated $31.25 million cost-share for the town and an accompanying tax rate increase of up to 5.31 mills - while also illustrating it as a need. The 50-plus-year-old facilities present multiple infrastructure and security issues and do not meet modern building code, health code, or educational standards. Six years ago, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges - the accrediting body of the region - placed Wheeler High School on a warning list.

Still, the feedback from the crowd of more than 100 in the North Stonington Elementary School multi-purpose room was split among the two factions that have made themselves heard for the past few months: Those who think the renovations are long overdue and those who don't think they're worth the tax bump.

At a $46,990,000 total cost, the renovate-as-new project would include more than 40,000 additional square feet of space for Wheeler Middle/High School and North Stonington Elementary School, along with a new gymnasium/auditorium on the north side of Route 2.

If approved, construction on the elementary school would begin next summer and wrap up one year later. Wheeler renovations would be completed in December 2017.

Some said they recognize the need for repairs but asked whether the entire project was necessary - a point officials countered by noting escalating interest rates and construction costs, and how much money the town has lost by keeping the project on the backburner for more than a decade.

Board of Education Chairman David McCord said chipping away at upgrades would be neither efficient nor education-friendly.

"You can spend three million dollars here and there," he said. "It's all gonna add up to a hodgepodge. It won't be a comprehensive building."

Others questioned the need entirely.

"I don't see how all this money is going to make my children's education that much better," said Colleen Smith, who has a 10th-grader and an eighth-grader in the school district. "I don't really see what the kids are going to get out of it."

Selectman Bob Testa - the sole selectman to vote against moving the project forward - reflected on his time as chairman of the Board of Education, when members committed to keeping Wheeler High School open after a long and labored town debate.

Voting against the project - which he called "extreme" - honors that commitment, he said, because it insulates the district from potential future budget squeezes.

"This isn't about, you know, love for the school," he said. "It's about the big picture."

Those in support of the project also spoke of the economic impact, but from a different angle - one that Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring emphasized at the beginning of the meeting by tying the project in to the town's Plan of Conservation and Development. An investment in the schools, Spring said, is an investment in the town's future, and a demonstration of direction to neighboring towns.

"With no school, what is going to bring business to this town?" said Chris Johnson, who has two children in the school system. "You have to have something to bring people here."

"We're not asking for a new school," Nero said. "But you've gotta do something."

a.isaacs@theday.com

If you go

What: School renovation project referendum

: Noon to 8 p.m. May 5

Where: New Town Hall

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