Vote delayed on North Stonington school project; alternatives limited

North Stonington — With the fate of the school building project up in the air and the town forced to send the project vote to a referendum at a later date, the path forward is murky and residents may be faced with the possibility of having no schools at all.

Residents were expected to vote at a town meeting Thursday on whether to continue with a contentious school building project, which has fiercely divided the town since its approval two years ago. That meeting still will be held Thursday but not the vote, leaving the fate of the project undecided until Feb. 8 at the earliest.

The town was required to send the vote to referendum after it received multiple petitions totaling over 200 signatures.

The $38.5 million school building project, of which taxpayers will be responsible for paying about $21 million due to reimbursement from the state, is intended to improve facilities and address serious maintenance issues in the district’s aging buildings.

If residents ultimately vote in favor of the project, the groundbreaking will be held in mid-February as scheduled.

But if voters decide to halt the project, the town will be left with an increasingly complex situation, which includes a question of rebuilding the schools or eliminating them altogether, and a closing window for financial assistance.

Even if the project is canceled, residents still will be responsible for at least the $1.6 million already spent on planning and a $2.9 million contract the town has committed to. But that amount could increase now with yet another delay. The town previously had received extensions on awarding all but one of its contractor bids, but the deadline for those remaining bids had been extended only to Feb. 2, meaning the town now must ask for another extension.

The town also still will need to confront its schools’ serious maintenance issues, including an elementary school that soon may be inhospitable due to polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, contaminants. These chemicals can be harmful in high levels.

When asked if he sees a scenario where there are no schools in North Stonington at all, Superintendent Peter Nero said, “It is a close possibility because of the situation with the PCBs.”

“There is no easy solution and the timeframe is critical,” he continued.

Nero said that if residents vote to halt the project, he would ask for residents’ recommendations about how to proceed, but said the elementary school issue will not be able to wait much longer.

“We have three classrooms that are closed right now, and PCBs are in everything in that school,” Nero said, citing how even the paint and expansion joints used in previous construction efforts are potentially contaminated. “The PCB problem has to be dealt with.”

Under the current plan, elementary students temporarily would be moved to the Wheeler Middle School while their building is being remediated.

Renovate here or send students away

Town officials have planned for some alternative approaches to providing education for North Stonington kids, should the project fail to gain enough support.

First Selectman Mike Urgo has said previously that if the vote halts the project, he likely would suggest moving toward a piecemeal renovation approach. However, residents would have to vote to approve that project. And given that previous analysis by the School Modernization Committee found the piecemeal approach to be even more expensive than the current plan, it certainly could prove challenging to garner enough resident support.

At a meeting earlier this week, both state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, expressed doubts about the ability to secure state financing to assist with a school project in the near future.

“My only thought to you is if you choose not to go forward with this, that’s your choice, but I do not see school construction money available in the future with the way the State of Connecticut is with its finances,” Somers said Monday night.

And there remains one rather large elephant in the room: the possibility of sending kids to school in neighboring towns. That prospect has been consistently opposed by the Board of Education, which has cited, among other things, the challenges of long bus commutes and losing its ability to independently influence the education of its children.

The Board of Education has researched the option, though — on multiple occasions, including just over five years ago.

At the end of 2012, the town paid Capital Region Education Council $10,000 to conduct a feasibility study on sending students to schools outside North Stonington. The results of that study, which at the time were presented to a packed house of over 200 community members at the elementary school, concluded that paying tuition for students to attend schools elsewhere would result in negligible savings and may even prove more costly in some scenarios.

And that study did not even account for the additional cost of paying unemployment to teachers and staff who would lose their jobs as a result.

Aside from education

Champions of the project often talk about the academic achievement of the town's schools and the need to update the buildings. Meanwhile, those opposed to the project often cite concerns that the tax burden would be too much to bear, especially for those on fixed incomes. Some opponents have made an issue of the language of the resolution regarding reimbursement eligibility as well.

Residents also are discussing what the schools mean to the town beyond the educational impact. For many, the schools provide a sense of community.

“The schools are our greatest resource and asset in the town,” Urgo said. “They are literally the heartbeat of our community.”

"We don’t have a lot of services here in town, but we have our schools,” he added.

But in a debate that frequently comes back to finances, it may end up being the economic impact of the schools that is most important.

Dan Spring, chairman of the Board of Finance, said that although the town is determined to maintain its rural character, it also needs to be able to attract families, and schools are a big draw.

“It has been demonstrated as people look for towns to settle in, they want it to be safe ... and they ask about ‘How are the schools?’” he said.

Spring said investment in the schools creates a sense of vitality that attracts commercial businesses, which ultimately could help lower the tax burden, making up for the cost of the project.

“As the grand list grows, there is an inverse correlation to the mill rate,” Spring said. “I could envision our grand list growing 10 percent and easily offsetting that two mills” built into the town budget for the length of the school project bond.

c.clark@theday.com

If you go

Where: Gymatorium, 298 Norwich-Westerly Road, North Stonington, CT 06359

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1. 

Discussion: Presentation on the school modernization project with public discussion and comment. Also will include talk of upcoming referendum.

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