North Stonington school project nears funding deadline

North Stonington - As officials hastily prepared for the second referendum in two months on a proposed school building project, they struggled with reaching consensus over what is in the best long-term interests of the town and its students.

The newest revision of the contentious proposal is set to be discussed at a town meeting next week. Voters rejected a $47 million proposal in early May; the project currently on the table would cost $40.52 million.

Officials are rushing to hold a town meeting and referendum in time to send plans to the state by June 30, the deadline for qualifying for state reimbursement. Depending on whether the town receives an additional state waiver, its portion of the renovation could be $25.87 million or $22.42 million, according to a project budget and reimbursement form.

Opponents of the project have criticized its expense, which Selectman Bob Testa estimated last week could result in a nearly 4 mill tax hike. (Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version.)

But recent debate on the topic has gone beyond dollars and cents. During the process, the town has even reached out to nearby school districts, asking about their willingness and ability to take on North Stonington's 200 high school students.

There is little disagreement over the fact that the district's middle and high schools need improvement. As he walked the halls of Wheeler last week, Superintendent Peter Nero pointed out broken heating systems, ancient windows, low ceilings, cracks in the walls and outdated science laboratories.

The proposal would demolish Wheeler Middle School and renovate the Wheeler High School building, which would then house both middle and high school students, Nero said. It also would include upgraded science facilities.

The school district has been advocating for building improvements for 12 years, he said, and school officials have "looked at it from every angle - this is the most practical way to go."

Additional changes to the project would "water it down," Nero said, adding that doing a big renovation project rather than small updates would allow the town to take advantage of state assistance.

First Selectman Nicholas Mullane, who said he thinks arguments on both sides of the issue have merit, said the town is in a bit of a bind because the facilities are in such bad shape.

He said upgrades should have occurred over the last decade or so rather than saving it all for one major project, during which they will need to account for several changes to state and federal requirements.

Voters are now facing a "culture shock," Mullane said, because of the significant impact the project will have on tax rates in the middle of challenging economic times.

Testa said the arguments against the project amount to more than that.

A former Board of Education member, he agreed the facilities need updating, but said the project put forward by the school board is both too costly and too "one-dimensional."

"There's more to a commitment to education than the buildings. It's the entire package," he said, adding that officials should get taxpayers to buy into a vision that includes launching such an extensive project.

Last week, some residents accused Testa of going outside of his jurisdiction and behind the backs of fellow board members by reaching out to the towns of Stonington, Griswold and Ledyard and to Norwich Free Academy, asking whether they were interested in taking on North Stonington's 200 high school students.

Testa said those residents were trying to create "hysteria" in the town. No one has suggested closing the high school, he said, and the school board and first selectman were aware of his communication with nearby districts.

Testa said he spoke with other towns after Board of Education members stated that Montville was the only town willing to take their students, which he did not believe to be true.

All four schools he emailed - Stonington, Griswold, Ledyard and NFA - responded receptively within 90 minutes, Testa said. He heard from a representative of Stonington within 5 minutes, he said.

Board of Education members "poked the bear, and they weren't happy with what happened," Testa said.

Stonington Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco said Tuesday that Testa had asked whether Stonington High could accommodate additional students, and whether school officials would be willing to sit down and discuss the idea.

"I said 'yes' to both questions," Todisco said.

He said having North Stonington students in Stonington would be a "win-win for both communities."

Nero, however, said sending students to other towns would mean North Stonington residents relinquishing control of their kids' educations.

"I'm not going to back off on this - this school is a gem and should remain open," he said.

While Testa emphasized that no one is taking steps to close Wheeler High, he said not exploring all the options would be "short-sighted and not looking out for the best interests of students and taxpayers."

A town meeting on the proposal will be held Monday at 7 p.m. in North Stonington Elementary School Multi-Purpose Room.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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