Published June 23. 2014 9:49PM Updated June 24. 2014 10:40AM
Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this article.
North Stonington — For the second time in two months, voters on Monday rejected a proposal to renovate the town’s schools.
In a referendum that brought out 41 percent of the town’s registered voters, the 853-698 rejection of the pared down, $40.52 million proposal was a slightly closer vote than the one on May 5, when residents voted 694-457 to reject the initial $47 million project.
Opponents said they couldn’t stomach the cost — a potentially 4.08 mill tax increase in the first year, if the town went with a 20-year borrowing plan — and insisted there must be a more affordable way to improve the schools.
“Things are not booming around here,” said Edgar Wood, a resident who said the struggling economy is preventing citizens from supporting the project.
Wood, a former teacher, came to Town Hall Monday evening to hear the results of the referendum. He had decided earlier not to vote because he was ambivalent about the project and didn’t think his input would make much difference.
But he added that he had a problem with the way project proponents approached the failure of the first proposal by rapidly coming up with a lower cost version and asking for a second referendum.
“Some people resented having to vote twice,” he said.
That may be true, but election officials said turnout was unusually high. As closing time approached on Monday, they had used almost all of their 1,500 ballots, even with 61 absentee votes.
“I’ve never seen a turnout this large,” said John Lorde, chairman of the permanent school building committee, who has lived in town for 63 years.
Lorde supports the project, saying renovations are sorely needed — allegedly, the same crack has been in a middle school window since he graduated 45 years ago — but he predicted before the results were calculated Monday that it would probably be a close vote.
“It’s a divided town,” Lorde said.
The referendum’s failure leaves school and town officials to decide what the next step should be for a town with a small population and facilities that need to be upgraded to meet code, improve security, provide more educational opportunities and removed hazardous materials, such as PCBs.
Although there won’t be time for voters to consider a third variation of the project and still qualify for state reimbursement this year, Superintendent Peter Nero said Monday that he will continue to push for renovations.
This time, Nero said, he will submit his proposal to the Board of Finance well before January to avoid the time crunch that happened this year.
Selectman Bob Testa, who opposed the school building project, said the town should be looking at opportunities other than multimillion dollar upgrades, or at ways to help finance such an expense. One option, he said, would be to team up with a town in the region that has expressed interest in sending their students to North Stonington.