North Stonington votes to continue school building project, will break ground Friday
North Stonington — After petitions put the fate of the $38.5 million school building project in doubt just before a planned groundbreaking, the town will move forward with the project after residents overwhelmingly reapproved it at Thursday's referendum.
The project, which will cost taxpayers $21 million after state reimbursement, was approved by a vote of 1,352-611. Following the vote, First Selectman Mike Urgo announced the project’s groundbreaking would occur at 9 a.m. Friday outside the gymatorium.
The 1,963 ballots cast made for one of the town's largest referendum turnouts in recent memory and was even higher than the referendum two years ago when 1,813 taxpayers voted. But whereas that original vote approved the project by just three votes, the results of Thursday's referendum were much more resounding.
"It feels fantastic because there was such a large margin and I couldn't hope for anything better," Urgo said after the results were announced in Town Hall. "Last time, it was close and I didn't have the elation because you hate to see the town divided."
"This is a mandate and you have to feel good about it," he added.
The results of the vote were met with raucous cheers and hugs from town and school officials, students and parents who had crammed into Town Hall by the dozens waiting to hear the outcome.
Supporters hope this latest vote settles the fate of the divisive school project, and allows the town to move forward.
After the original approval, the project remained a contentious issue. Then last month, several residents renewed their efforts to stop the project by filing petitions calling for a revote. Because North Stonington is an unchartered town, the Board of Selectman was required to comply with the request of petitioners.
As of last week, the town had already spent $1.6 million on the project and committed to nearly 30 contracts valued at $33.8 million. If voters had rejected the project Thursday, the town would have not only lost the $1.6 million but would have likely faced financial penalties and lawsuits from firms that had signed contracts.
But now, construction on the first phase of the project will begin with the project slated for completion in 2020.
Those in favor of the project argue it is necessary if the town wants to continue to educate its students in North Stonington due to the current maintenance problems with school facilities — include PCB contaminants at the elementary school.
The project calls for renovating the elementary school, demolish the existing middle school, building a new combined middle and high school wing attached to the gymatorium, and ending the use of the tunnel under Norwich-Westerly Road.
It will also update science labs, separate the multipurpose room from the cafeteria in the elementary school, add a new chorus and band room, and update facilities to meet various building codes, state educational standards and federal mandates.
Advocates also argue the project will attract new families and economic development.
What remains a bit of a lingering question though is how does the town alleviate the concerns of the "no" voters, many of whom feared the impact the project will have on taxes.
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.
“I think that this project is really the best alternative for those who are worried about that," said Urgo referring to concerns about the tax burden. "We can control the predictability of the cost of this and the alternatives we really couldn't."
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