North Stonington school project faces effort to reconsider approval

North Stonington — As the town's much-discussed school building project heads toward a February groundbreaking, it may have just encountered another hurdle.

Two citizens' petitions were submitted and certified by the town clerk late last week, requesting that the Board of Selectmen call a town meeting to reconsider whether the town will continue with the $38 million project. It is estimated that state aid will lower the cost to taxpayers to $21 million.

First Selectman Mike Urgo said he wasn't ready to get into the specifics of what the petitions mean for the project, but said he would have more clarity after speaking with the town attorney at Tuesday's Board of Selectmen meeting.

"It is probably better to have that meeting and look at what action is really required," Urgo said. "What I do know is that a lot of time, work and research has gone into figuring out what is the most cost-effective method for getting our schools up to date."

Both petitions, each signed by 25 people, call for the same reconsideration of the project.

Approved in a tight vote at a 2016 referendum, the school building project calls for renovating the elementary school, building a new combined middle and high school wing attached to the gymatorium, end the use of the tunnel under Norwich-Westerly Road and address issues with the roof at the Board of Education's central offices.

But despite getting approved a year and a half ago, the town has remained fiercely divided about the subject with some even citing their frustration with it at a town meeting discussing the 2017-18 education budget back in December.

"I think the people would all be happy if we get to vote on it again," said John Simonds, one of the organizers who helped petition for signatures. "I feel a little guilty it is so late in the game, but the realization of all these different things, we're not really getting what we voted on."

Simonds said he and others who signed the petition are concerned the current scope of the project doesn't align with what residents actually approved in the resolution. He said they are also concerned that residents may not fully understand the amount of money that would be spent in interest payments, and that the option of consolidating in part with the Stonington school district wasn't fully explored.

Simonds said he called the Stonington School District recently and asked if officials there were open to taking on students from North Stonington students. 

Stonington Superintendent of Stonington Schools Van Riley confirmed Monday that he had been contacted by a North Stonington resident to discuss the issue. 

Riley said that there is still room for North Stonington students in the Stonington schools and the district would be open to meeting with North Stonington to discuss the possibilities just as it was two years ago. But only if North Stonington is interested.

However, he said, Stonington was not going to initiate those kind of talks, and the responsibility would be on North Stonington to begin any conversation about the subject.

Two years ago when Stonington unveiled a study reflecting the potential impact of bringing Wheeler High School students to the district, North Stonington officials were upset with North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero going so far as calling it an "ethical breach." 

Stonington officials said at the time that if Wheeler High School students were sent to Stonington High School they would have access to wider range of courses, sports and extracurricular activities.   

Ultimately the North Stonington Board of Education dismissed the possibility of considering the option a few weeks later, and the study was also found to have some flawed data.

c.clark@theday.com

Editor's Note: This sentence has been edited to clarify its meaning: North Stonington officials were upset with North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero going so far as calling it an "ethical breach."

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