As $65.8 million Ledyard school renovation vote nears, officials tout advantages

Ledyard - School officials made a final plea on Monday for residents to support a $65.8 million school renovation project that they say will avert expensive building repairs and improve the learning environment.

In return, citizens questioned some aspects of the proposal, but most were supportive of the district's plan to upgrade its infrastructure at two schools and demolish a third.

The proposal - approved by the Town Council and up for a vote on Tuesday - would update aging facilities with significant state reimbursement, leaving the town to cover only some $24 million of the project's total cost.

In addition to the renovation of Ledyard Middle School and Gallup Hill Elementary, the proposal calls for the demolition of Led yard Center School, which would become a grassy field. Students attending LCS would be redistricted.

The hefty price tag seemed to leave some residents hesitant, but many avowed fiscal conservatives stood up to speak in favor of the project on Monday - including Mayor John Rodolico, who admitted that he would have been shocked if someone told him a few years ago that he'd advocate for such a pricey project.

"I fully endorse this project," said Rodolico, who cited similar projects on the table in towns like East Lyme and Stonington. "I think it's something we as a town need to do to stay competitive."

"I know I don't want to have to pay more taxes than I have to," said Board of Education member Mimi Peck-Llewellyn, who on Monday explained the projected fiscal impact of the upgrades. The 2019-20 year would have the highest tax increase, and after that, the rate would begin to fall again, said Peck-Llewellyn.

Citizens' money won't be "used willy-nilly," she assured residents, but to maintain the quality of education offered in town.

"This is the right plan for Ledyard," concluded Peck-Llewellyn. "If we don't do this project, we are in deep doo-doo."

"We have significant issues with all three buildings," said Board of Education member Rebecca Graebner on Monday, citing septic problems, roofs in need of repair, upgrades necessary to comply with federal disability regulations, overwhelmed electrical circuits and traffic flow issues at the schools.

Officials have frequently cited a 2011 facilities report by Massachusetts-based engineering firm Symmes Maini & McKee Associates that estimated that the schools required $14 million in repairs. Now, each of the three schools also needs a new a new roof, an estimated additional cost of $3.5 million.

That would mean a total of $17.5 million in critical repairs, a cost that Graebner said project architects Silver + Petrucelli have consistently said that Ledyard is underrepresenting.

Officials continue to use the $17.5 million number, she said, because "we just don't know" what all the repairs would add up to.

One resident questioned whether the $17.5 million cost would actually be avoided if the referendum passed, pressing Director of Buildings and Grounds Sam Kilpatrick for a number that would be necessary to keep the schools functional until the project could be completed.

"There's no way I can quantify that," said Kilpatrick, who admitted that some money may need to be spent on repairs - for instance, if the troublesome septic system at Ledyard Center School malfunctions, that would have to be dealt with.

But for most repairs, Kilpatrick said they might be dealt with differently - and more economically - when the district knows they only have to hold up for a year or two rather than for the foreseeable future.

Resident Christine Krupansky provided one of the most critical comments of the night, taking aim, among other things, at a board member's comment that the project will allow more elective possibilities for middle schoolers.

"There's no room at the middle school right now to offer a million new electives," said Krupansky. "Sounds nice, but you're misleading the people."

She also questioned why the three school projects needed to take place concurrently and expressed concern that Ledyard might take on other costly projects in the next few years without strategic planning.

Steve Juskiewicz, chairman of the Municipal Permanent Building Committee, reassured Krupansky that the concurrent projects had been fully thought through.

The schools were all built in the same time period and "they're all (now) 50 years old at the same time," said Juskiewicz. The current facilities "are barely adequate, and they're getting worse by the day."

"As soon as we get our students into a better facility, the better for our students," said Juskiewicz.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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