North Stonington can make the wiser move

The Day urges voters in North Stonington to turn out Thursday evening for their town meeting if they want to do what we have long considered the most sensible thing: Instead of rebuilding the high school and the elementary school, put the money into a renovated elementary school and sign a deal to educate town high school students at the relatively new Stonington High School.

The question is not whether Wheeler High School is worth saving. It is a strong academic institution with loyal alumni, and it contributes greatly to the town's sense of community. But its building is out of date and out of code compliance. The question for the town meeting is what North Stonington taxpayers believe they can afford.

The current plan, on which town officials have proceeded in good faith, scraped by on a 3-vote margin in 2016 after two previous, more costly plans, went down in defeat. This has been going on for years. And now, when more than $1 million has been spent and additional millions committed, petitioners who don't consider their share of the $38 million project affordable are back for another try.

It's a signal that they think the project would throw good money after bad, and that they will persist in their opposition as long as school renovations are on the table. North Stonington may be fated to keep going through the same discussions, with the same attendant delays, until the building really isn't fixable.

It certainly would have been best if opponents had sought a new vote much sooner, ideally right after the 908-905 passage of the plan almost two years ago. But since they are still adamant enough to petition a new vote, it should be now, before the town invests any more in the high school.

To us, renovating Wheeler fails to make sense not just because of the per capita costs of operating a public high school with fewer than 200 students, but mainly because the arguments for keeping secondary education in town have failed to sway a strong percentage of those who would have to pay for it. 

The estimated cost to North Stonington taxpayers, after state reimbursement, is $21 million. The town would bond the costs. Various predictions of the annual burden on the owner of a house valued at $175,000 hover around $500 in additional taxes.

To some extent, the door to revisiting the issue was opened recently when voters rejected the education budget, perhaps tied to simmering feelings about the narrow approval of the building project. However, supporters of the school budget got a second bite at that apple with a re-vote. Now building project opponents want a re-vote of their own.

Whichever way the vote goes Thursday, major decisions lie ahead. Wheeler students, faculty and staff should not have to continue to cope with the uncertainty of whether or when the building will be fixed. North Stonington cannot keep re-fighting this battle.

If the building project survives this town meeting challenge, it needs to go forward as planned. Groundbreaking is due soon.

If it fails, proponents need to face the evidence that the town's small taxpayer base won't suffice. Stonington school officials say they have the room for Wheeler students, if North Stonington wants to discuss the matter.

Elementary school renovations will still need to proceed. Perhaps some of the money invested in the project could be recouped for that part of the project.

In any case, only six months remain until the town is required to pass a new annual budget — despite abundant evidence that North Stonington doesn't think the state-mandated budget deadlines apply. Residents should view future education budget proposals on their merits, not out of disdain for a project’s approval.  

This long struggle has given all sides their due, but now it is time to move on or risk staying forever in a rut. 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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