Region 16 project passes referendum test

From left, Selectman Chris Bielik, and Board of Education members Wendy Oliveira and Sheryl Feducia listen to the Beacon Falls results for the Region 16 school referendum Tuesday night at Laurel Ledge School. The referendum failed in Beacon Falls, but passed overall due to support in Prospect.

Overwhelming support by Prospect voters carried Tuesday’s referendum on the proposed school building project in Region 16 to success.

The referendum passed by a count of 1,239 to 1,084.

“Terrific. It’s a new era in Region 16,” Superintendent of Schools James Agostine said after the final results were announced at the Prospect Volunteer Fire Department. “We’re going to fix the problems and move forward.”

The majority of Prospect voters approved the project 861 to 463, whereas the project was voted down by Beacon Falls voters 378 to 608. The “yes” votes in Prospect where enough to give the project the green light by a margin of 155 votes.

“The kids of Region 16 won,” Board of Education Chair Priscilla Cretella said. “After 28 years, I couldn’t ask for a nicer thing. … I’m just ecstatic.”

Beacon Falls school board members were disappointed the referendum didn’t pass in their town, but happy with the overall outcome.

“I’m thrilled. It’s long overdue. The work needs to be done,” Beacon Falls board member Wendy Oliveira said.

The $46.7 million plan calls for building a new elementary school in Prospect to replace Community and Algonquin schools, major renovations to Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls, and converting Algonquin School into the new district office.

“I think a town is really judged by its school system, and I think the improvements are necessary,” said Beacon Falls resident Carol Erlingheuser after voting Tuesday.

Erlingheuser, who has grandchildren in the high school and elementary school, said the middle and high schools are great.

“I think the elementary schools need to be brought up to the same standards,” she said.

After the anticipated state reimbursement of about 68 percent on eligible costs is factored in, the cost for Prospect and Beacon Falls is estimated to be $19.7 million, with Prospect covering about 60 percent and Beacon Falls about 40 percent. Prospect’s share is estimated at $11.8 million, which leaves Beacon Falls to pay for the remaining $7.9 million.

The estimated tax impact of the project for both towns is an additional $102 in taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value for each year over the 20-year bond. The figure is based on the current grand lists of both towns, and could fluctuate with changes in the grand lists over time.

For some who voted against the project, the price tag was just too high.

“I’m cheap and it’s too much at one time,” said Beacon Falls resident Randall Frink, who did agree improvements to the schools were necessary.

Under the plan, an 85,630-square-foot, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school will be built on a 49-acre site at 75 New Haven Road in Prospect, known as the Tallmadge Hill Road property. The new school will replace Community and Algonquin schools.

Nadia Murtishi of Prospect said her family moved to Prospect because they thought it was a good school system, but were disappointed when they saw the state of Algonquin and Community schools.

“I’m hoping that my kids can have a chance to be in a good school,” Murtishi said.

Plans for Laurel Ledge include building new corridors to connect all of the buildings at the campus-style school and renovations to the bathrooms. One science and one music classroom along with two new bathrooms will be added to the school as well.

As for the new district office, the two-story wing of Algonquin School will be demolished and the remaining portion will be renovated for office space with an all-purpose room for school and community events. The annex at the school would be saved for future use. The area where the two-story wing stands now will be used for parking.

“This sets us up for the next 75 years,” Agostine said.

Now that the voters have given their blessing to the project the next step will be an intensive design phase and working on the necessary paperwork to submit to the state by the end of June to help secure the estimated reimbursement rate on the project.

“All that will go forward full speed ahead right after Christmas,” Cretella said.

The board will use the same architect, Fletcher-Thompson and construction management firm, Turner Construction, that have guided it through the project so far.

“We thought it was very important that we have them along every step of the way,” Cretella said.

Agostine estimated that by next spring the board will be ready to go out to bid on the project and construction would begin in the spring of 2013.

As the project progresses Cretella said the board will hold more public meetings to keep the public informed on the project.

“We have an idea of what we would like, but we definitely want the public’s opinion,” Cretella said.

Laraine Weschler contributed to this article.