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Selectmen want more input on future of North Stonington schools

NORTH STONINGTON — Two weeks after residents soundly defeated a second version of a project to renovate all three school buildings, selectmen are still at work in an attempt to upgrade the town’s educational facilities.

At a special Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday, officials stated that their approach would include meetings with the Board of Education and its building committee, the state Department of Education and perhaps a financial adviser.

Selectmen also discussed hiring a professional survey-taker to develop questions to determine what residents want. An outside firm would be impartial, thereby minimizing complaints of slanted questions, the officials said. Multiple meetings would also be held in order to listen and act upon the concerns of the public. The end result would be a cohesive compilation of what residents would like to see improved and are willing to pay.

Meetings could start in August and selectmen said they hope to have a better idea of the public’s opinion by December.

Money, however, is an obstacle because funds that would be needed to hire bond counsel, financial advisers and a pollster do not exist in this year’s budget and thus would have to be transferred from other line items.

The selectmen are looking for more public input before developing an alternative to the plans submitted by the Board of Education, which failed in its efforts to gain approval of a project that had the potential to raise property taxes for the average homeower by hundreds of dollars per year. The first plan had a total cost of nearly $47 million, including state reimbursement. It was defeated in a referendum on May 5, and a less costlier version that concentrated on safety and code-related repairs was rejected on June 23. That plan would have had a total cost of about $40.5 million.

Regardless of what new plan is developed, First Selectman Nicholas Mullane II said the bond period should be no longer than 20 years, because to extend it to 25 or 30 years would cost more money over time.

Mullane said he also believes that the Board of Education has yet to adequately explain the reasoning behind its decision in January 2013 to keep Wheeler High School open.

“They have to address to the public why they feel it is cost effective and in the best interest of the students, if they are getting the best education,” he said. “We can’t answer that in today’s world, we have to answer that going forward and figure out what’s going to happen to the town of North Stonington and the state of Connecticut, and how education will be treated.

“I think without addressing that, it’s going to be difficult to pass a school project,” he said.

Selectman Robert Testa expressed concerns that while multimillion school options had been debated, cost estimates for the town’s new Emergency Services Building have quietly risen from $6.3 million to $8.7 million. “We can’t ignore that,” he said. “It could go back to the people for another vote.”

Testa also believed the voting process had been difficult and residents needed time to regroup. “So far a lot of information has been thrown out to the public. I don’t know if we should jump back in right away with another plan,” he said.

According to Testa, fear tactics were used in the last two school referendums but the plans were still not passed. “The manner that this project went forward on their end has created a lot of issues in the community,” he said. “We all heard about this unanimous vote to keep (the school) the way it is, and it was the board. There were two referenda in two months that were rejected. The public said ‘no.’ Do you ignore that?”

All three selectmen, Mullane, Testa, and Mark Donahue, called for the exploration of more options over the next few months.

The selectmen also agreed that the Board of Education must develop a maintenance plan and also start budgeting money for projected costs for its new boilers and air conditioners, a practice frequently not done in the past.

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