Economics helped Groton school referendum pass

Groton — For weeks, voters heard the same refrain: reject the school building plan at referendum and pay millions just to keep what you have; or approve the referendum, pay a few million more and get something new.

"I think people realized they were going to pay something one way or another," said Lenny Winkler, co-chairman of the Groton 2020 Schools political action committee.

Voters approved the $184.5 million school construction referendum 6,296 to 5,773, including absentee ballots, according to unofficial totals by the registrar’s office. The margin of victory surprised even supporters of the plan, who had expected it to be closer.

“For this to have passed in a presidential year with the number of voters that were out there, this to me was amazing,” Winkler said. “We were absolutely ecstatic when we saw the returns because I know how hard our group worked.”

Superintendent Michael Graner called the vote an "endorsement" of investing in the schools and future economy of the town.

"Then, of course, to have the opportunity to create two new elementary schools is going to really send a message that Groton is providing high-quality education in modern facilities, supported by a community that is obviously committed to its future," he said. "And I could not be prouder."

The plan will build one new middle school adjacent to Robert E. Fitch High School, renovate and convert the two existing middle schools into elementary schools and close three of Groton's oldest buildings — Claude Chester, S.B. Butler and Pleasant Valley elementary schools. Groton also plans to expand its International Baccalaureate program, recognized for rigorous academics that show how to apply lessons worldwide.

Groton 2020 Schools campaigned vigorously to get its message heard, holding public forums, distributing hundreds of flyers, erecting signs across town, speaking to voters at the town’s fall festival and meeting with people in their homes.

“I think that the project passed because the 2020 PAC got the word out and obviously it resonated with the voters. Especially during the last month with mailers, newspaper inserts, etc.,” said Rosanne Kotowski, co-founder of the political action committee Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency, which opposed the plan.

“Also, they were fortunate in that they had significant resources and volunteers," Kotowski said. "We hope that the project is successful and provides the solution to the issues of racial imbalance, portable classrooms and academic achievement as outlined in the plan.”

Graner said he believes the economics of the plan ultimately swayed people.

"The question was, did the community want to invest a significant amount of money just to maintain status quo buildings, or invest another $20 million and get three modern educational facilities, and take three aging, costly facilities off line? Frankly, I think the economic notion of a smart investment here won the day," he said.

The state is expected to cover $100 million of the project costs. Based on Groton's median home value of $223,800, which is assessed at a lower amount of $156,000, the school project would cost taxpayers an average of $194 annually.

Groton submitted its application in June for state reimbursement for the project. Graner said he would notify the state Department of Administrative Services on Wednesday that the referendum passed, the next step in that process.

The district also must notify the State Board of Education of the referendum passage. The state board approved the construction plan in January 2015 as Groton’s solution to solve the racial imbalance at Claude Chester Elementary School.

The Groton Town Council and Board of Education meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Town Hall Annex to discuss budgeting in the next fiscal year. Town Manager Mark Oefinger said he believes they also will discuss the school construction program now that it passed.

d.straszheim@theday.com 

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