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Financial benefits of Wheeler students at Stonington High deleted from study

Editor's note: The numbers Stonington included in its report were based on incorrect data on a state Department of Education webpage. More accurate data and an explanation have since been reported.

North Stonington — In the weeks before announcing a feasibility study on accepting North Stonington students at Stonington High School, the Stonington school superintendent and Board of Education chairman decided to delete sections describing the financial benefits to both towns, documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request show.  

The draft, prepared by Stonington Superintendent of Schools Van Riley, estimates that the town of North Stonington could save $3 million annually by sending its high school students to Stonington High School, and argues that the town of North Stonington pays nearly double per high school student at Wheeler.

The Stonington study in March came as North Stonington school officials worked to finalize a $38 million building project that would renovate the elementary school and build a new wing for middle and high school students. 

Facing the town's Ad Hoc School Building Committee is a June 30 deadline for submitting school building projects to the state in order to qualify this year for the reimbursement, which will bring the total cost to the town to a little over $20 million.

The Board of Education is slated to vote on the school modernization project at a special meeting Tuesday 6 p.m.

Some savings could be absorbed in central district, transportation and special education costs, the report cautions, but overall the estimate shows a "tremendous financial benefit to the North Stonington community."

The study ultimately contained no financial information.

"North Stonington could also use some of these savings to improve K-8 facilities without additional taxation, meet other local needs, or even lower the tax rate," the report reads.

An additional deleted section describes financial benefits to Stonington, including the hiring of new teachers and support staff, and calls for a long-term contract between the town and North Stonington.

In preparing the feasibility study, Riley, Stonington school board chairman Frank Todisco and Stonington's Director of Finance Gary Shettle corresponded a number of times about how much Wheeler students cost per year and how much Stonington could charge.

A memo from Shettle gave three separate estimates for tuition for North Stonington students.

The first, $14,919, was calculated by taking the overall education budget, less transportation and special education costs, and dividing by Stonington's enrollment.

The second, which took the spending on the high school, less transportation, divided by enrollment and escalated by a 3 percent increase in the budget, was $13,026.

The third, which added North Stonington students to the enrollment and divided that into the total costs of operating the high school, was $12,647, accounting for no increases in staff.

"This may not be a good assumption," Shettle wrote.

Efforts by Todisco and Shettle to estimate the recent per-pupil cost for Wheeler students ultimately produced a range of numbers.

Shettle wrote that he received an estimate of $26,713 in the 2013-14 academic year from North Stonington's business manager Kimberly Allen. He also estimated that in 2014-15 that had declined to $20,302.

"In any case the per pupil is still over $20,000," Shettle wrote in an email to Todisco and Riley March 3.

Todisco said he decided on the 2013 numbers because they were the last data reported to the state by both districts.

The per-pupil cost of students at Wheeler High School is disputed by North Stonington Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero.

"It doesn't separate the costs ... because we also have some of our staff that service the elementary school as well," Nero said.

He estimated the cost of educating a Wheeler High School student as being around $108 more a year more than in Stonington.

Allen also disputed the way Stonington's numbers were calculated.

"It is difficult to configure a per pupil cost just for the high school because Wheeler is a middle/high school with shared resources and staff," Allen wrote in an email.

The sections were removed in early March, according to an email from Riley that notes that Todisco asked for the section to be removed, though Riley said in an interview it was made mutually.

According to Todisco, he requested the sections be removed in order to present them to the board at a separate meeting in April, and said he didn't think the financial information would have improved the reaction of North Stonington school officials.

The Stonington Board of Education did not vote on the study or the letter co-written by Todisco and Riley.

"I don't think the reaction (in North Stonington) was, 'I wish we had the financial information,'" Todisco said. "I think the reaction was, 'We are committed to this building project, we are committed to a K-12 school district, this is what we're going to pursue.' I think the only reactions I've heard are reactions from the superintendent (Peter Nero) and the board chair (Robert Carlson)."

Enrollment at Stonington High School is projected to fall from 712 to 545 over the next 10 years, while the school-age population in North Stonington is expected to decline from 975 to 642, and the study said that Wheeler High School students "can certainly be accommodated within current classroom spaces."

The email chain begins in December, with Todisco sharing an editorial from The Day with Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons and Selectman Michael Spellman noting the costs of the North Stonington school renovation project.

"We need to keep an eye on this as it unfolds. ... I have been and will continue to watch this closely. When the time is right I will ask you to join me in 'selling' Stonington," Todisco wrote.

An undated and unattributed projection for four new bus routes into North Stonington, picking up high school students at Wheeler, would cost $192,097, though commentary provided by Riley suggested "this would be much less if they simply added 7.2 miles to four current routes."

North Stonington would have to maintain its current transportation to and from Wheeler under this arrangement.

Stonington schools could also have offered to pay the unemployment costs of North Stonington teachers who would be laid off under the agreement, according to Shettle, and said that some teachers from Wheeler could be transferred to Stonington High.

"If I am North Stonington, one has to conclude that some staff would be laid off," he wrote.

Capital costs were also discussed preliminarily. Todisco said that the study is "not at all looking at saying we need to do something because we need to do capital improvement." 

However, a cover letter of the study and backup information from Superintendent Riley noted the facilities cost at the high school for the next 20 years and stating, "We should include a proportional cost agreement if we move forward with this concept."

"If the heating goes out, there would be some sort of sharing of the costs," Riley said.

The day the study was presented to the Stonington Board of Education, Riley emailed Nero, noting that the study was confined to the educational and facilities benefits and that "financial would be negotiable."

Nero wrote back saying the study "impeded progress" and could undermine the building project.

"I am extremely disappointed with this matter," he wrote. "I am not so naïve as to think that this is some spur of a moment request."

At a joint meeting of the North Stonington boards of education, finance and selectmen on Thursday, students and staff spoke out for keeping the school in town the day after the board of education voted to to keep the school district K-12

Wheeler High students and staff arrived at the meeting wearing T-shirts with "#weareWheeler" and "#NoStoPRIDE" across the front.

 n.lynch@theday.com

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