North Stonington residents air school project feelings ahead of referendum
North Stonington — After a town meeting Thursday night in which school building project advocates and revote petitioners presented their perspectives, the date finally is set for determining the fate of the controversial project.
Town officials have set the referendum for late next week, at which time residents will vote on whether or not to continue with the school building project, which was approved at a referendum two years ago. Contractors were readying to break ground later this month.
The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 8 at Town Hall.
Residents originally were expected to vote on the project at Thursday’s meeting, but the town was required to send the vote to referendum after receiving multiple petitions requesting an all-day vote instead.
“Honestly, this is the town we live in and it's OK that this happened,” First Selectman Mike Urgo said to a crowd of hundreds of residents. "I know nobody wants to hear that, but this is the government we have, we're all neighbors."
"Get the facts, vote the way you feel, don't hold ill-will against anybody, let the process play out and hopefully the right decision will be reached," he said.
Intended to improve facilities and address serious maintenance issues in the school district’s aging buildings, the $38.5 million project — of which taxpayers will be responsible for about $21 million after reimbursement from the state — has been one of the most divisive issues in town going back to its original approval by just a three-vote margin.
Those in favor argue the project is necessary if the town wants to continue to educate kids in North Stonington, given the current maintenance issues with the schools. Advocates also argue the project prevents the town from being held at the whims of districts in other towns, and is an investment that will help further economic growth, attract new families and ultimately lighten the tax burden for residents in the future.
“Our students excel at life because of the practical and academic skills and knowledge they receive in North Stonington ... do not throw our students away,” said Burt Bartick, 73, adding he is a senior on a fixed income. "It is more than a building project, we are talking about the core and soul of our community."
Meanwhile, those opposed to the project often argue it is too costly and places too great of an additional tax burden on residents, especially those on fixed incomes. Additionally, some opponents have argued the terms of the originally approved resolution have not been met in relation to the reimbursement rate.
“I'm concerned about the financial impact on residents of the town,” said John Olsen, one of the original petitioners. "There are a lot of people concerned about the cost to themselves, the cost to their homes and in this case the cost to their heirs."
"We have something we take pride in here. I've never spoken against this project, I've always spoken against the way it is going to be billed to us," he added, referencing concerns over the project being paid for through property taxes, which may not accurately reflect people's current fiscal situation.
Although the exact tax impact could vary, it is expected that the town budget will have to include funding equal to 2 mills in the annual budget in each of the 30 years of the bond.
Given the divisive history of the project, one would have expected a far more heated meeting Thursday. Instead, the crowd seemed overwhelmingly in favor of the project, with only a small handful standing up and expressing opposition.
Both those for and against the project were allowed presentations, and the town's bond attorney, Doug Gillette, made an appearance to address the question of whether the reimbursement rate matches what voters originally approved.
"We've reviewed this, we've read the grant commitments, we looked at the state statute," Gillette said. "We are clearly convinced and advised the town that the level of grant funding as set out in the bond resolution has been met and that the project as approved by the voters can go forward."
But despite the abundance of support at the meeting, it’s still anyone’s guess how next Thursday’s referendum will shake out and the path forward remains complex. Residents are responsible for at least the $1.6 million already spent on the project, as well as the fallout from a $2.9 million contract the town committed to for one contractor.
The town previously was granted extensions on all but one of the project’s contracts after two prior petitions originally forced Thursday’s meeting to reconsider the project. Now the town’s construction manager has asked for additional extensions on the remaining contracts, which were going to be awarded Feb. 2.
Beyond financial liabilities, there is also a limited timeframe for addressing the PCB contaminants at the elementary school, which may soon render it inhospitable. Additionally, alternative approaches for addressing issues with all the town’s schools may prove more expensive, and the option of sending students to schools in other towns has significant trade-offs, as well.
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