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Groton schedules repeat of schools referendum, seeks special legislation for project

Groton — The town plans to hold another referendum and seek special legislation to ensure it can move forward with building two new elementary schools, because the notice for the most recent referendum was not posted within the correct time frame. 

It will be the third vote the town has held on the project. In 2016, voters approved a plan to renovate the middle school buildings into elementary schools. Then, last December, voters approved a proposal to amend that plan, authorizing the town to construct two new elementary school buildings instead.

Town Manager John Burt said the town's bond counsel found that the December referendum didn't meet the 30-day legal requirement for notification, as the legal notice was published in the newspaper only 20 days before the referendum. The publication of the notification falls under the town clerk's responsibilities, he said.

After discussing with the bond counsel the options for moving forward to fix the issue, the town is taking a "two-pronged approach," Burt said. 

The town has scheduled a referendum on May 6 so residents can again vote, as they did in December, on revising the plan to allow construction of two new pre-k through fifth-grade elementary schools, rather than the renovation and conversion of middle schools into elementary schools.

The town also has requested that the General Assembly approve special legislation to validate the Dec. 11 vote despite the improper notification, Burt said.

Town to keep working on plans

Voters in 2016 approved spending $184.5 million, with $100 million in state reimbursement, for the Groton 2020 school plan that featured a new consolidated middle school and renovating the current middle schools into elementary schools.

But it later proved more cost-efficient to build new elementary schools, as converting the middle schools would require alterations and the new buildings would last longer and have energy-efficient technology, Superintendent Michael Graner said in an interview last fall. The plan for a consolidated middle school didn't change.

After the state gave approval to the town to construct new elementary schools, the town held the Dec. 11, 2018, referendum to get approval from residents to build new elementary schools. Voters approved the updated plan 1,092-239.

Burt said he doesn't expect the need to hold another referendum or seek special legislation to delay the construction of the elementary schools, which is anticipated to start early next spring and wrap up on June 30, 2021. The town will continue working on the design plans for the elementary schools to avoid any delays.

Graner said Burt met with him and Board of Education Chair Kim Shepardson Watson and informed them of the situation, and they're pleased with the two options. 

"We're just keeping our nose to the grindstone and we're going to keep working away, making sure we have two new elementary schools that will be online and open hopefully in the fall of '21," Graner said.

Burt said the need for a new approval will not impact the state reimbursement for building the two new elementary schools. 

But if the referendum and special legislation fail to pass, the town would have to look at options for the elementary schools.

"One option that would need to be discussed is to request the state allow for renovation instead of new construction on the elementary schools," Burt said. "The earlier referendum vote to allow renovation is still valid."

He said that while it's a shame the town has to hold another referendum, it's better to do it and make sure the town is on schedule as much as possible with the schools and keeps moving forward.

Burt noted that the Dec. 11 referendum passed overwhelmingly and said hopefully people will support it again. He added that building new elementary schools has the same cost as renovating the middle schools, but residents will get a better product.

The issue has no effect on the building of the new 155,000-square-foot consolidated middle school, which the town will soon break ground on, he said.

Registrar of Voters Kristen Venditti estimates it costs $20,000 to $23,000 to hold a referendum in all of the town's seven districts. Burt said the town scheduled the referendum on May 6, the same day as the city election, which will save about a quarter to a third of the costs, since two of the polling places already are running that day.

Special legislation

Burt said the town is pursuing the referendum since special legislation could take until as late as early June to make it through the General Assembly and, as it's a political process, there's no guarantee it will pass.

If the May 6 referendum passes, the town no longer would need the special legislation. But if the referendum were to fail, the special legislation, if approved, would validate the results of the Dec. 11, 2018, referendum, he said.

Burt said he met with state Reps. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, and state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, regarding the special legislation.

A bill to validate the referendum results has been introduced by the Planning and Development Committee chair at the request of Conley and will go to public hearing at 10 a.m. Monday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. Conley said similar legislation has been done in the past, as items pop up every year where dates were missed for a variety of reasons.

She said everyone she has spoken to, including Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz; Majority Leader Matthew D. Ritter; Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, all have been supportive. She said they know that this has been a longstanding project in Groton, that the schools are aging and need to be addressed, that the project includes a diversity school to address racial imbalance and that voters twice have supported the plan but now it's facing an issue with paperwork.

Somers said that, based on conversations she's had with legal experts, it wouldn't be easy to get the bill through the legislature. She said it's a difficult argument to make to validate a referendum in which the legal notice isn't off by a day or two, but 10 days.

"It doesn't mean we're not going to try, but repeatedly we've heard the cleanest way to make this correct is unfortunately to have another referendum and make sure it's noticed on time, like it should have been in the first one," she said. "There's no reason this should have happened. I met with the town manager and the superintendent and the delegation and we all agreed we should try to have two pathways to correct this problem."

Public notification

At issue is that less than the state-required 30 days of public notice was given before the Dec. 11 referendum, said Judith Blank, the bond counsel. 

A return of referendum notice signed by Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher certified that the notice was published in The Day on Nov. 21 and that it was done not less than 30 prior to the referendum. That date however was 20 days before the referendum.

Moukawsher said she was following a schedule of actions from the bonding attorney that called for publishing the notice as soon as the Representative Town Meeting approved the ordinance, which triggers the referendum. Thirty days' notice is required before a special election, and she said she had called the bonding attorney, because she can't publish notice of a referendum before it is authorized.

Moukawsher said that as soon as the RTM approved the ordinance on Nov. 14, she sent the notice of the referendum to be published, but it was short of the 30-day requirement before the Dec. 11 referendum.

"I followed it as closely as I could under the circumstances," Moukawsher said of the schedule. 

Blank said she provided the town with a checklist of procedures to follow and, in all her communications to the town, conveyed that the notice of referendum has to be published at least 30 days prior to the referendum.

She said RTM approval was not needed before the publication of the notice of referendum, because the notice later can be canceled should the RTM not approve it.

"I knew that December 11 was targeted for the referendum and we had discussed publishing notice prior to RTM action and then cancelling if the RTM were not to approve going forward," Blank said. "I thought I had made clear to the town that 30 days' notice was required."

k.drelich@theday.com

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