North Stonington town, school boards divided over project that failed at vote

North Stonington - Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring drew on his experience as a pilot on Tuesday to explain to a room of school and town officials why they should not be deterred from continuing work on the school project that has failed at referendum twice.

Passengers may be relaxing on a cross-country flight on a 747, but the pilot "is continually making corrections on that aircraft to get it from JFK to Los Angeles. Continually," he said during a joint meeting of the Boards of Education, Finance and Selectmen.

"Along the way, he's talking to air traffic control, he may have to go into holding pattern, he may have to change altitudes, he may have to go into an alternate, and that's all part of the continuum. And people still arrive in Los Angeles and don't know the difference."

It was an optimistic look at a building project that school officials said they've been trying to get through for a decade and that, earlier this summer, resulted in several heated exchanges between members of the three boards. With no path forward, the boards convened Tuesday's joint meeting in an attempt to sort things out.

Although the three boards butted heads several times, by the end of the meeting, they seemed to have agreed on one point: To reach a consensus and begin to approach the project as a united front, the boards will need to bring in a professional mediator.

But it took a while to get there.

The meeting was, observed resident Nita Kincaid, mostly "rehashing, rehashing, with a lot of negativity on almost all sides sitting here."

She said the meeting was a good idea but was disappointed by the tone, adding that "I'm having trouble seeing how this group is going to pull it all together."

She's not the only one who has become pessimistic: Spring's flight metaphor put the finance chairman in the strange position of trying to convince Superintendent Peter Nero, a vocal advocate of the project, that it is worth pushing forward, even though taxpayers seem reluctant to support the more than $40 million he says is necessary to improve the district's facilities.

Although he continues to insist the project is necessary, Nero opposes reductions to the cost and doesn't expect the economy - or taxpayer sentiments - to change significantly in the next year. He told officials on Tuesday that he would like to put the project aside for a while.

The Boards of Selectmen and Education also revisited an argument about their leadership roles, which they disputed earlier this summer.

"Leadership is not saying, OK, everybody stand up, talk about how their chickens are starving and they don't have any money and they're on a fixed income until my ears explode," said Board of Education Chairman Dave McCord. He said leadership requires getting people to "buy in" on projects that are good for the community.

First Selectman Nicholas Mullane, who has refused to state his position on the project because he believes the selectmen's role is to figure out the desires of the people, disagreed.

"Don't look at the selectmen for being the leadership," he said. "The leadership is everybody. Everybody in town, everybody in this room, everybody who bothered to come."

As they discussed how to make the project affordable, Board of Education member Darren Robert brought up another leader he thought should be involved: state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington.

"I don't think we should have any more meetings without inviting (Urban) specifically," said Robert. He said Urban "never does anything positive for this town" and suggested "we have her here and tell us how to make this Wheeler Leadership and Technology Magnet School," which could help the town secure state funding.

While Mullane said the magnet school seemed like a great idea, McCord spoke against the concept.

"To take a kid from eighth grade and say this is your niche right here, that's what they did in the Soviet Union," said McCord. "Is that the way we want to do it?"

"Our kids aren't taking Goldfish 101 because we don't offer Goldfish 101. We don't have the facilities to offer all of these bizarre, obscure classes that are being offered in some of these magnet schools," continued McCord, who said North Stonington students are nevertheless successful and "the state should perhaps look at our school as an example of how to teach basic education."

By the end of the hour-and-a-half discussion, the boards didn't seem any closer to the selectmen's goal of taking a survey on resident opinion. But Nero said he was going to call the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education to find out how to bring in a professional facilitator.

"Good," said Mullane, who admitted that "I would rather not chair the meeting."

"Let's look at a mediator," he said. "I've been in a room with facilitators and mediators, and they handle it totally different."

k.catalfamo@theday.com
Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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