By KATHRYN FLAGG
SUDBURY — Plans for the Leicester/Sudbury/Whiting community school fizzled on Saturday when Sudbury residents narrowly defeated a measure for planning funds by a vote of 66-60.
The measure, which voters initially knocked down 54-44 on Nov. 10, would have contributed $7,000 to the tri-town effort to draw up plans for the potential school.
For many Sudbury residents, the paper ballot vote — which derailed plans for a tri-town school that have been discussed since last Town Meeting Day — came down to economics. The $7,000 in planning funds would have amounted to around $21 per household in Sudbury, but that could have paved the way for a more expensive bond vote in the next year had the construction project moved forward, some Sudbury voters worried.
“I think in the end that the current state of the economy is what really killed the thing,” said Steve Roberts, chair of the Sudbury school board. “We all are nervous about the economy and what’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”
Roberts said that Saturday’s meeting drew the largest attendance he’s ever seen at a town meeting, and that the meeting sparked good conversation. Roberts’s Power Point presentation, designed to address questions that some Sudbury voters felt went unanswered on Nov. 10, also garnered good reviews.
In addition to voicing concerns about the general state of the economy, Roberts said, voters also worried that, should the town float a bond to pay for a new school, the state may not have reimbursed the town in a timely manner.
This, Roberts said, was based on reports that the state “just simply stopped sending money out” and wouldn’t be required to reimburse the town on any timeline but the state’s own.
That reportedly made some voters worried about paying interest on the bond.
Sudbury resident Beth Brown-Limmer wasn’t at Saturday’s meeting, but said she was happy to hear of the vote’s outcome.
“In the big scheme of things, I’m pleased that we’re going to pull back and show some fiscal restraint here,” said Brown-Limmer, who spoke up against the measure at the Nov. 10 meeting.
“There’s enough uncertainty out there in the economic world and the legislative future here to give me pause about jumping in with both feet,” she continued.
Now, according to Roberts, the Sudbury School will continue with business as usual for the next several years.
“(Education) is a big expense, especially in a small town like Sudbury,” said Roberts. “We’ll just try to continue to find ways to save money and at the same time give our kids a good education.”
If, in the future, the town could no longer keep its doors open — either because of a drop in the student population or another unforeseen problem — Roberts said that Sudbury would likely tuition students to a neighboring school.
For now, Roberts said that he didn’t think anyone in Sudbury was displeased with the quality of education being offered to Sudbury children.
“We’re turning out some good students,” he said.
On that front, Brown-Limmer, who has lived in Sudbury for 30 years, agreed.
“It’s not that we don’t love the children and want the children to have the very best education that they can have,” she said. “I’m just not convinced that small isn’t perfectly OK and working well.”
Members of the tri-town committee will meet on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon to chart a new course.
Leicester resident Hannah Sessions, a longtime proponent of the tri-town school, said that she’s relieved that Sudbury voters voiced their reluctance about the new school now, rather than a year from now “after we spent all that time and taxpayers’ money” drawing up plans for the tri-town school.
“We have to move on into other directions,” she said. “The status quo isn’t going to work for Leicester’s school because we have too many repairs that have to be made.”
Forming a union school district with Whiting remains an option, and Sessions said that Leicester is talking to other neighboring schools. She said that she regrets “leaving (Sudbury) behind,” but that Leicester will continue to explore options for the future.
But the planning funds that Leicester and Whiting had already approved are now off the table, due to an amendment on Leicester’s vote that made the funds contingent on positive votes in all three towns.
That means that Leicester and Whiting school officials are heading back to the drawing board.
“It’s certainly not the end of the road for Leicester,” Sessions said. “It’s just a turn in the road.”