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Ahead of second referendum, North Stonington residents fiercely divided over education

North Stonington — Barreling toward a second referendum next week, the Board of Education presented the proposed school budget at a town meeting Monday to a fiercely divided audience. 

The presentation outlined the specifics of the budget and was the first time this year that the board has directly been able to discuss the budget with residents. A mix-up prior to the town meeting before the first referendum led to the presentation being omitted.

"This really is the best budget we can put forward," said Christine Wagner, the board's chairwoman.

The budget calls for a zero percent increase from the previous year, following a pattern that's been fairly consistent for the district over the last several years. Since 2009, the budget has only increased by more than 1 percent twice.

Last month, residents finally approved a 2017-18 town budget at referendum, while rejecting the proposed education budget by just 10 votes. That school budget also called for a zero percent increase compared to last year.

After meetings of the Board of Selectman and Board of Finance following the vote, officials decided to push the same budget forward for a second referendum, with several expressing concern that low voter turnout failed to deliver an accurate reflection of town sentiment.

The sentiment at the town meeting was clearly divided both among residents and members of the Board of Finance.

Dan Spring, chairman of the finance board, supports the budget and said that education is an important strategy for economic development.

"One of the strategies is to develop catalyst that are leveraged by distinctive assets of our town," said Spring. "Our educational district is one of those assets."

But Chris Hundt, an alternate member of the finance board, said that the rejection of the budget at the previous referendum was tied to continued frustrations of some residents with the approved school building project.

"The reality is everybody wants something until it is time to pay for it, and right now we have a mixed and divided community," Hundt said.

Several residents expressed a similar sentiment, as well as frustration with being presented the same budget they already voted down. Many also said they felt their pocketbooks simply couldn't handle it.

"It's not so much that people are against you spending money, it's that we don't have it," said resident Chris Chrissos.

Meanwhile, there were others who showed up in support praising the school's high student achievement, and ability to already work with a tight budget. 

Resident Bernard Bartick, who turned 73 on Monday, stressed that although many people are feeling the tough times, it is still important to support the schools.

"I got to be 73 because so many people sacrificed for me," Bartick said. "I'm willing to sacrifice for the future. It's called paying it forward."

Residents will have the opportunity to vote on the budget from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 18 at Town Hall.



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