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With a second referendum pending to renovate North Stonington's schools, voters will have the chance to indicate whether they are satisfied with an austere plan or don't want to pay much of anything to fix the schools.
On May 5, voters handily rejected a $47 million project, 604-457. After state reimbursements, those renovations would have cost the town about $31 million.
Few can question the need for the renovations. The elementary and middle/high school facilities, located either side of Route 2, are outdated and in poor condition. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has warned that the high school may lose its accreditation without substantial improvements.
The latest proposed plan, with the price tag reduced to $40.5 million, would provide new computer and science facilities. Infrastructure upgrades would repair or replace the plumbing, electrical and fire protection systems. New designs would make the schools compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Roofs and windows need replacing.
Recognizing the urgency of getting work underway, the building committee and Board of Education came back quickly with the amended plan after the earlier defeat. Gone is a new gymnasium and auditorium planned at the middle and high school facility. A new multi-purpose gymnasium and stage at the elementary school remain, but cut in size by 1,500 square-feet.
It remains an expensive project for a small town. The state would reimburse an estimated $22.4 million to $25.9 million, depending on how much of the revitalization project qualifies for aid. That would mean a tax rate increase of about 4 mills to repay the bonds for North Stonington's share.
The townspeople have a conflicted relationship with their schools. There is love for having hometown schools, but anxiety over paying for them, particularly given the town's small commercial tax base and stagnant grand list.
In the recent past, proposals surfaced to close the high school and send students to schools in adjoining communities, where they would be exposed to broader curriculum and extracurricular opportunities, while eliminating the town's need to maintain a school.
This is a practical proposal, but one most townspeople reject because of the emotional attachment to its hometown high school and the closeness it provides students.
Yet, given the chance to pay for renovations, the voters May 5 said, "no."
The process resumes tonight with a hearing on the latest project proposal at 7 p.m. at the elementary school. A referendum is tentatively set for June 23.