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North Stonington — A $47 million school facilities renovation plan failed decisively at referendum Monday night, bringing more than a year of work to an abrupt halt.
More than 1,100 taxpayers weighed in on the building project, with 694 voting against it and 457 voting for it.
Poll volunteers said they could not recall a referendum that had drawn this large a crowd. Last summer, 634 ballots were cast in the referendum on a $6.36 million emergency services building plan — another project that stalled for years despite longtime concern over a town facility’s age.
Talk of the need for a long-range building plan dates back decades. But the New England Association of Colleges and Schools ignited its most recent incarnation when the accrediting body placed Wheeler on a warning list in 2008, citing multiple issues with the facilities, including lack of space, sub-par computer labs, maintenance issues and unbalanced temperature control.
The Ad Hoc School Building Committee was created that year. But even before then, in 2006, the Board of Education had contracted architectural firm Kaestle Boos, which offered four renovation options for the combined Wheeler Middle School/High School as well as North Stonington Elementary School.
Six years passed. There was a second facilities study, a demographics study and a study of the feasibility of closing the high school and sending students out of district. And then there were the calls for the school’s closure.
When Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero took over in the summer of 2012 he vowed to make a building project his priority. That November, the Board of Education — following a public hearing of a petition to close Wheeler — voted unanimously to keep the school open and come up with a plan for the long-awaited renovations.
In January, the Board of Education and the School Building Ad Hoc Committee — created in 2008 to examine the Wheeler issue independently — began the process of coming up with a definitive plan, starting by rehashing the research.
Just over a year later, the plan was unveiled to the public.
The $46,990,000 project — designed by Rusty Malik of Quisenberry Arcari Architects — would have built a new gymnasium/auditorium on the north side of Route 2. The plan called for more than 40,000 square feet of additional space for both Wheeler Middle School/High School and North Stonington Elementary School. New science labs, a new cafeteria and kitchen, and space for the music program were promised for Wheeler.
The plan addressed multiple age-related challenges of the 50-plus-year-old schools, including modern building and health code issues, Title IX issues and the security concerns over crossing a busy thoroughfare to get from the high school to the gymnatorium.
Both schools would have had new, secure main entrances, and other safety and security features Nero emphasized as his first priority in renovating the facilities.
Though few in town debated the need, taxpayers balked repeatedly over the past few months at the cost and resulting tax impact. The town’s share of $31.25 million could have resulted in a maximum tax rate increase of 5.31 mills — a spike voters deemed unaffordable Monday night.
Nero said just being able to bring the project to a vote was a sign of progress. His next step will be to call another meeting with the ad hoc committee.
“We’ll come back with something,” he said.
Selectman Bob Testa — the only selectman to vote against the project when it came to the board for approval — said that town and school officials will now have to regroup.
“It’s about the taxpayers’ willingness and ability to pay for things. And we have a lot that we’re currently obligated to and future obligations,” he said. “It wasn’t a vote against the schools. I think it was just simply giving us a mandate to go back and come up with something more practical.”