Groton approves school construction referendum

Groton — Residents approved a $184.5 million school construction plan to build one new middle school adjacent to Robert E. Fitch High School and convert the two existing middle schools into renovated elementary schools.

The referendum was passing 6,183 to 5,519 as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, with about 1,500 absentee ballots yet to be counted. 

Voters were asked to approve the full amount, but the state is expected to cover $100 million. Based on Groton's median home value of $223,800, which is assessed at a lower amount of $156,000, the school project would cost taxpayers an average of $194 annually. The plan would close three of Groton's oldest buildings — Claude Chester, S.B. Butler and Pleasant Valley elementary schools.

Members of the political action committee Groton 2020 Schools had promoted the plan, erecting signs across town, speaking to voters at the town’s annual fall festival and holding public forums. Committee co-chairman Craig Koehler said the plan is needed to update the district’s aging schools, meet the state's mandate for racial balance and make the schools more competitive.

But members of the political action committee Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency opposed the plan, saying it would drive up taxes and not improve the quality of education.

Voters interviewed Tuesday gave voice to both sides.

“You sit there and do a Band-Aid approach, you end up spending more in the long run,” said Joe Russack-Baker, a voter in District 1. He said he’s tired of people saying they'll support education and law enforcement, then cutting those areas.

Matt Thomas, a voter in District 3, also voted yes. “If you’re going to fix it, do it right,” he said.

But Sara Barker, a voter in District 2, said she’d rather see existing schools repaired. “I just wish they would fix what is already standing,” she said.

Kristen Anderson, a voter in District 2, agreed. “Improve it. Put on an addition. You don’t need a whole new school,” she said.

The State Board of Education accepted a draft of the plan in January 2015 as the district’s solution to solve a racial imbalance at Claude Chester Elementary School. If voters reject the plan, Groton would have to present an alternative.

The state considers a school out of balance if the percentage of "non-white" students is greater or less than 25 percent of the district average. Claude Chester has a non-white population of 71.5 percent, compared with a district average of 45.4 percent.

d.straszheim@theday.com 

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