With building new elementary schools a less costly plan, Groton Town Council supports revised proposal

Groton — The Town Council on Tuesday supported sending to referendum in December a revised ordinance that would allow the town to build two new elementary schools on the existing middle school sites.

The state approved the plan to build new elementary schools since it would actually be less expensive than the original plan to renovate the middle schools into "like new" elementary schools, local officials have said.

Voters in 2016 approved the $184.5 million Groton 2020 School plan at referendum. Since then, the state Office of School Construction Grants and Review changed its process and required the town to do a study comparing costs of renovating schools versus building new ones, according to a status report from the town's Public Works Department.

The state found it would be less costly to build new elementary schools, as outlined in the study, and gave the town approval to build new schools, the report stated.

Three people at a public hearing Tuesday spoke in favor of revising the language of the original Groton 2020 Plan ordinance, so it states the town will replace the Carl C. Cutler Middle School on Fishtown Road and West Side Middle School at Brandegee Avenue with two new 75,000-square-foot elementary schools, rather than convert the middle school buildings into elementary schools.

The plan to build a 155,000-square-foot consolidated middle school at the former Merritt Farm will continue as planned.

Craig Koehler, who served on the School Facilities Initiative Task Force and the Groton 2020 PAC, stressed during the public hearing that the modification is just "semantics." He emphasized that the town will not be voting on funding the school projects again, but on changing the language for the elementary schools project from "renovated to new" to "new."

He said this comes as a result of the state requiring more detailed analysis to determine which method of construction will be the most cost effective for both the state and the town.

"It was originally thought by the task force that renovating to new would result in less cost to the town," Koehler said. "This further analysis has proven otherwise, so it makes perfect sense to amend the wording of the ordinance so the school building projects can continue as planned, on time, and in the most cost efficient manner."

Resident Portia Bordelon, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, said she's fully in support of the revised ordinance. But, noting that state leadership is up for election, she asked if the town should be more broad in its wording, so it doesn't have to hold another referendum if the state goes in a different direction or isn't funding at the same level.

Town Manager John Burt said the town had looked at building flexibility into the language, but Bond Counsel indicated the town has to make clear in the ordinance what its plans are.

Mystic resident Mike Whitney, another RTM member, also expressed support.

"I think getting new schools for less money is something we should all be behind," he said, adding that the new elementary schools, as well as the new middle school, will be assets for the town.  

The revised ordinance will next head to the RTM, and if the town body doesn't veto it, the measure moves to a referendum Dec. 11.

When asked by a town councilor what would happen if the ordinance doesn't pass, Burt said the middle school will continue to be built new. He said the town would press on and try to renovate the middle school buildings into elementary schools, but it is currently unknown how much state reimbursement the town would get for each item, and the town would possibly have to cut out certain components of the building projects if funding is less than projected. 



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