North Stonington residents to vote Thursday on school building project

North Stonington — Residents will go to the polls Thursday to revote on a school building project that was approved at referendum nearly two years ago, and for which the town was expected to break ground later this month.

The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall.

The vote originally was expected to take place last week at a town meeting. However, as an unchartered town, North Stonington was required to hold another referendum on the project after receiving two petitions at the end of January.

The $38.5 million school building project, of which taxpayers will be responsible for paying about $21 million due to reimbursement from the state, is intended to improve facilities and address serious maintenance issues in the district's aging buildings — including PCB contamination in the elementary school.

Calls to revote on the divisive project put the town in a position seemingly unprecedented in the history of southeastern Connecticut: potentially canceling a school building project just weeks before breaking ground, and with more than $1 million already spent and nearly 30 contracts awarded. Those contracts are valued at $33.8 million in total.

Those in favor of the project argue it will attract new families and economic development, and is necessary if the town wants to continue to educate children in North Stonington. Meanwhile, those who oppose the project argue the increased tax burden it carries is too great, especially for those on a fixed income.

It is expected that the town will have to include funding equal to 2 mills in the annual budget in each of the next 30 years that the project is bonded to account for the project's cost.

If residents vote to continue the project, things are expected to stay the course with a planned groundbreaking later this month and hopes of completing the project in its entirety by 2020.

If residents vote to halt the project, things are far less clear.

Aside from having to account for the $1.6 million already spent, and likely possessing some degree of financial liability for the remainder of the $33.8 million committed in contracts, the town also will be left staring down some difficult decisions about the future of education in North Stonington.

First Selectman Mike Urgo previously said he would suggest moving toward a piecemeal renovation approach, but when the School Modernization Committee explored that option, it found the approach to be more expensive than the current project. And given the residents' reluctance to embrace the cost of the current project, it seems doubtful they would approve a more expensive method.

Another alternative that some residents call for is closing North Stonington schools altogether and sending students elsewhere. But this, too, carries some trade-offs, including the loss of the town's ability to independently influence the education of its children, longer bus commutes and a likely negative impact on property values and economic development in town.

Additionally, the Board of Education previously researched the option of sending students elsewhere and a 2012 feasibility study concluded that paying tuition for students to attend schools elsewhere would result in negligible savings and may even prove costlier in some scenarios. Those findings didn't consider the additional cost of paying unemployment to teachers and staff who would lose their jobs as a result.

c.clark@theday.com

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