North Stonington votes yes to invest in schools

North Stonington — By a 3-vote margin — 908 to 905 — voters approved a $38.5 million school bond Monday to renovate the town’s ailing schools, surprising school officials, students and parents who gathered at Town Hall to await the outcome.

Turnout was the highest the town's registrar of voters could remember for a referendum, roughly 46 percent.

Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero said he was "absolutely elated" with the results, crediting the work of all of the committees that have explored renovating the town's schools.

"We've come a long way ... this is a groundswell of support," Nero said.

Bob Carlson, chairman of the Board of Education, said the vote could have gone either way, and it was a "long time coming."

The project is to renovate the elementary school, demolish the existing middle school, build a new combined middle and high school wing attached to the gymatorium, and end use of the tunnel under Norwich-Westerly Road. It will also update science labs, separate the multipurpose room from the cafeteria in the elementary school, add a new chorus and band room, and update facilities to meet various building codes, state educational standards and federal mandates.

As she voted midday, resident Bethany Holly-Kosztala said she believed it was necessary to support the renovation project.

One of her children is in the special education program, and she said she would not send them to a nearby high school such as Stonington if the town decided to regionalize its school. She would homeschool her children rather than send them out of town, she said. 

"It's time for them to step up for our kids," she said. "(North Stonington) has the best educators in the state."

Two looming deadlines — an application for funding through the USDA's development program and state reimbursement, all of which will need to be completed by June 30 to get the USDA interest rate and state consideration of the schools — mean that town officials will need to move quickly.

The language approved by the town stated that the town will not continue to pursue the project if it does not receive reimbursement from the state, excepting $1.59 million spent in the months that the state is processing the project before approval.

The project will come with either a 2.79- or 3.34-mill tax increase, depending on the financing. Reimbursement will mean the town is responsible for either $21.6 million or $23.4 million, depending on a waiver from the state.

 "I think we were at a bit of a crossroads," Ad Hoc School Building Committee Chair Mike Urgo said of the vote. "And with this we're going to have strong infrastructure, we're going to have a new EMS complex, we're going to have schools that are state-of-the-art, economic development is on its way."

 Arguments about the school multiplied over the past few weeks, leading up to a tense town meeting last Monday. Most speakers didn't criticize the building project itself, but rather were divided on the ability of the town to handle the tax hike, which several residents called "unaffordable."

Resident Dwane Vance, voting Monday, said taxes were "too high already, but that's true in the whole state." He voted against the project, stating that he believed the town should "let the kids go somewhere else."

However, many parents eager to protect the future of the school, and grandparents who raised children in town, came forward to approve the project.

Jenny Watrous, who was arriving at Town Hall with one of her children, not yet in the school system, said she moved to town in September specifically for the school system.

"I want to keep our kids in town. ... I went to this school and my father went (here)," she said.

Registrar of Voters Gladys Chase said Monday's turnout was the highest she could remember for a referendum, roughly 46 percent. The number of voters has jumped over the last few months, she said, since the referendum for funding the Emergency Services building took place, due to the presidential primaries.

In previous referendums in 2014, the town rejected the school measure 853 to 698, and prior to that, 694 to 457.

The prior referendum brought out 41 percent of the town's registered voters.

The Ad Hoc Building Committee will take charge of the project as it moves forward.

n.lynch@theday.com

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