Published May 23. 2014 1:05PM Updated May 23. 2014 11:26PM
North Stonington — A public hearing will be held Wednesday on a revised $40.52 million school facilities renovation project that is $6 million lower than a previous plan rejected at referendum earlier this month.
The hearing will begin at 7 p.m. at the North Stonington Elementary School multi-purpose room.
On May 5, taxpayers voted against the initial $46.99 million project, which could have resulted in a tax rate increase of 5.31 mills.
Dave McCord, chairman of the Board of Education, said maintenance of the buildings has been deferred for years and is long overdue. He said every roof is past its warranty; every window, except in the gymnatorium, is 50 years old.
“So much has to be done, and the town will end up paying for it one way or the other,” said McCord. “Whether you do it piece by piece, or all at once, it just has to be done. I’d rather get state reimbursements than the town paying for it.”
Depending on whether the town gets an additional state waiver, the town’s portion of the renovation could be $25.87 million or $22.42 million, according to a project budget and reimbursement form.
First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II said he requested the public hearing before the proposal is presented to the Board of Selectmen because he wants the taxpayers to understand what the renovation project entails and what the financial implications would be.
“I’m just the presenter of facts and will do whatever I’m directed to do,” said Mullane. “Our grand list hasn’t grown. Is this adding value to education? This is the biggest project that the town has ever had. There is a lot for the people to consider.”
Talk of the need for a long-range building plan dates back decades. But the New England Association of Colleges and Schools ignited the most recent discussion in 2008, when the accrediting body placed Wheeler on a warning list, citing multiple issues including lack of space, sub-par computer labs, maintenance issues and unbalanced temperature control.
The original $46.99 million project — designed by Rusty Malik of Quisenberry Arcari Architects — would have built a new gymnasium/auditorium on the north side of Route 2. That plan called for more than 40,000 square feet of additional space for both Wheeler Middle School/High School and North Stonington Elementary School. The plan aimed to address multiple age-related challenges of the 50-plus-year-old schools, including modern building and health code issues, Title IX issues and safety concerns over crossing a busy thoroughfare to get from the high school/middle school to the gymnatorium.
Under the latest proposal, plans to build a new gym/auditorium were eliminated, which reduced the additional square footage by nearly half.
But the new plan does maintain some integral components proposed in the original renovation proposal, such as creating new science labs at the middle and high school, fully renovating all classrooms, making the schools Americans with Disabilities Act compliant and replacing all the fire mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems and infrastructure.
Some of the renovations at the middle and high school would include 12,058 square feet for a science addition with laboratory classrooms, lab preparatory and storage rooms and a kitchen and cafeteria addition.
The elementary school would include a new multi-purpose gymnasium with a stage, storage and community entrance lobby. The size of the gym was reduced by 1,500 square feet under the revised proposal.
The plan also maintains moving pre-K through first grade to the lower level and having grades two through six on the upper level.
After Wednesday’s public hearing, the selectmen are expected to act on the school project and, if they approve it, pass it to the Board of Finance. If the Board of Finance approves the plan, it would return to the Board of Selectman, which has tentatively scheduled a meeting for June 16 on the project. Voters would then vote on the proposal at referendum on June 23.
McCord said if the project is approved, the town would have to submit its plans to the state Department of Education by June 30.
“I don’t know what will happen to the project if it’s not passed,” said McCord. “I don’t know what we would do next. It just plain needs to be done.”