North Stonington is a fantastic community, full of great people of all ages and interests. We have an up-and-coming economy and were recently recognized as one of the fastest growing towns in Southeastern Connecticut. This growth is not by accident and it is happening in a manner that will complement our agricultural roots. Our Plan of Conservation and Development is guiding us; this document was written for the people by the people.
At the moment, we find ourselves in a bit of a conundrum. Our form of Town Meeting government allows a petition with 20+ signatures (½ of 1% of our population) to call for a Town Meeting. As a result of this North Stonington is being asked to re-look at whether or not to proceed with its school project, at the 11th hour. I am writing this letter because recently we’ve had some press regarding our schools and I want people to know that North Stonington as a whole truly does care about our schools very much. This was evidenced in the overwhelming support at our town meeting last Thursday where 650 people showed up and nearly everyone who spoke talked about the gem that is North Stonington Schools. https://www.northstoningtonct.gov/home/pages/north-stonington-town-meeting-february-1-2018
I want to try to explain where we are at so people can make an informed decision at the polls this Thursday.
In 2016 when this vote passed for our schools the margin was slim and the town was clearly divided on the issue. A lot has changed since 2016 but the status of the school issues has not. Let me attempt to explain a few of the changes with this project and the town’s situation.
In 2017 the EPA put us on their monitoring list and we were required to close three classrooms due to elevated PCB levels. On a monthly basis both the first selectmen and superintendent must send a letter to the EPA acknowledging this and we continue to do air quality testing to make sure all other spaces in the elementary school remain safe for students and staff.
Pre-referendum in 2016 we had conceptual designs. Once the referendum passed, we dove in and fully designed the building. During this process some things happened. First, we assumed a rate of 2.875% from USDA. We were able to get a better rate of 2.75%. Second, we assumed this project would have a 3-mill impact on the town. Now, we are of the opinion that it will have a 2-mill impact on the town of which 1 mill has already been incorporated. Third, when the project was approved we did not know we would need to replace our septic system with a DEEP system, but the new plan calls for and incorporates this. This new plan also is a better design, incorporating a campus feel and fixes all code, environmental, accessibility and facility issues. Finally, the committee had to defer demolition of the middle school wing until the end of the project if the projected funds are available. In general, all of the changes over the past year were extremely positive for the project.
Now at a decidedly inconvenient time, we are going to a vote on something that the town favored two years ago. The selectmen have been put in a position whereby delaying even a day or two on any decisions would cost us moving this project forward. Until something changes, the selectmen’s job is to continue to build the school. Our construction management firm is responsible for awarding the contracts and is at risk for this project. They have been charged with building the project and their job is to do so within budget. The contract guarantees that they will do this. This is why they could not afford to extend or risk losing any of our bidders. Our construction management firm is in essence on the hook for this project, given the timing of this.
Most importantly people should know that it seems very unlikely that the State of Connecticut will be continuing to fund schools at the level we currently were approved at. We were lucky to get our funding and were told this by our state representatives. Furthermore, we know the State of Connecticut is likely to render further cuts to towns and those discussions are just beginning for this fiscal year. We also know these school issues must be fixed, because regardless of how this vote or any future vote turns out, the issues do not go away.
Though we currently are looking at a $21 million project with state funding, failure to pass this vote will put the town in a position where it could be solely responsible for a large portion of the $38 million contracts that have been awarded. The timing of this petition, being submitted only minutes before the close of business at Town Hall on the day that the selectmen signed the contract, did not help our town. Though I respect the voters’ right to petition in our form of government, this action was misguided and most of the petitioners who signed this petition had never been to the regular school modernization committee meetings and may likely have been ill-informed of the consequences. It may have been understandable two years ago following the referendum to question this vote, but to do so only weeks prior to a groundbreaking has serious potential consequences.
In closing, please vote how you feel you must, but also recognize that the ramifications of this vote are great. I will do my best to serve and protect the town whatever the outcome. North Stonington is a wonderful place and I feel for certain that come Thursday night we will all come together as one and move the town decisively into the future.
The writer is first selectman of the town of North Stonington.