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North Stonington school board, selectmen, residents at odds over building project, regionalization, firehouse costs

By Kelly Catalfamo

Publication: The Day

Published July 02. 2014 4:00AM

North Stonington - A week after the second version of a costly school building project was voted down in a referendum, frustration and blame still dominate the public comment period of town meetings.

Residents packed Tuesday's Board of Selectmen meeting, during which school board members confronted the selectmen with concerns about how the building project was handled.

They also objected to reports that the $6.3 million Emergency Services Building project may come in over budget, asking why selectmen have not proposed regionalization and insisting the project return to the public for another vote.

First Selectman Nicholas Mullane said the selectmen need more information on the project before commenting.

Board of Education member Darren Robert said he felt "railroaded" by the selectmen and, in particular, by the fact that they had discussions with other communities about possible regional approaches to education.

He and other officials objected to learning about those conversations and other comments in the newspaper and asked selectmen to refrain from talking to the press about the issue until the boards can hold a joint meeting - something Mullane said was reasonable.

Superintendent Peter Nero admitted that he was "pissed off" when he saw North Stonington students on the agenda for a Stonington Board of Education meeting and called the superintendent there to complain.

Nero said he had no objection to exploring options but felt kept out of the loop on those discussions and thought the primary focus should have been on the building project put forward by the Board of Education.

"You need to clean up your act," Robert told selectmen, asking them not to approach other communities about North Stonington's schools.

The selectmen bristled at that accusation. Mullane said it was Preston that contacted him about regionalizing services, including but not limited to education. Selectman Mark Donahue said he was not aware of any active discussions on the issue.

Board members cited a comment by Preston First Selectman Bob Congdon in The Day that said Selectman Bob Testa had reached out to him, and complained about an email Testa sent to officials in Stonington, Ledyard and Montville, as well as Norwich Free Academy, asking them whether they were interested and able to take North Stonington's students.

Testa has maintained that he was just clarifying their positions for discussion and not proposing any immediate regionalization efforts.

"It is clear that you're trying to run the schools from this seat," Robert told Testa, who previously was chairman of the Board of Education.

Several members of the school board and their supporters also told the selectmen on Tuesday that they did not provide proper leadership during the building project and asked them to each describe their vision for education in the town.

Mullane and Testa appeared to agree with Donahue when he told the school board that setting a vision for education was their job, and that "while we may have opinions, you guys have got to hold your ground."

Donahue did say that, personally, he wants North Stonington students to stay in town.

"But I don't know where I get the dollars for that," he added.

School board Chairman Dave McCord assured Donahue that "there will be schools in North Stonington for the foreseeable future," vowing that classes will be held outside if necessary.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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