A divided North Stonington: Town mulls next school step

North Stonington - By Superintendent Peter Nero's estimation, renovations to the town's school facilities have been a topic of discussion for at least 12 years.

The decade-plus of discussion has led to the two failed referendums asking residents to spend more than $40 million to update the buildings. Now, town and school officials have to figure out how to move forward with a school system that had its accreditation put on warning by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges - which will be returning to check on the school system's progress in January - and has facilities that are badly out of date.

The state of the schools, which haven't had a major update in 20 years, "shows the danger in keeping a zero-increase budget," said resident Anne Nalwalk on Tuesday at the Board of Selectmen meeting. "You can't just let the house fall down."

Following Monday's vote, Selectman Bob Testa - a vocal opponent of the project - said the town serves the people and should now move forward with other options after the building project was rejected twice. In the past, he's mentioned the possibility of sending North Stonington's students to other districts, which generated some heated discussion in the town.

But Testa said he doesn't consider that a serious option right now. He's more excited about a possibility that he said will be discussed further down the road of North Stonington taking on Preston's pre-kindergarten and middle school students. Tuition that the town would receive from Preston would help offset the cost of school renovations.

The superintendent, however, said Monday that a "no" vote on the project wouldn't deter him from presenting a third version of the school upgrades to the Board of Finance next year. He said Tuesday he wasn't ready to discuss the issue further.

The debate about the school project, Testa said, "has divided this community unnecessarily."

Board meetings were frequently punctuated by bitter arguments between officials, usually Testa and Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring, who couldn't agree on what numbers should be presented to the public. They rarely reached a conclusion before First Selectman Nicholas Mullane made himself heard over their raised voices, urging them to move on.

"I definitely think there's a lot of healing that needs to happen in this community right now," said Testa on Monday after the referendum.

But healing wasn't on the agenda for Tuesday's Board of Selectmen meeting, during which Spring accused Testa of misrepresenting the project's impact in the paper and doing it "a terrible injustice."

That was followed by Testa's allegation that Spring was "coming up with (his) own calculations."

Moving forward when there's no consensus about the project's impact will be a challenge. But Nero has said he will submit plans to the Board of Finance with ample time next year, avoiding this year's time crunch.

Even Mullane, who has refrained from giving an opinion on the plans, acknowledged Tuesday that "we condensed a lot into a short period of time."

Whatever the town does to address the schools' problem, they need to get to work, said Testa, arguing that "the status quo is not going to cut it."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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