DURHAM — Residents on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected bonding $7 million to acquire the former Korn Elementary School and convert it into a community center.
“I’m disappointed, but we are going to regroup, we’re going to refocus… and we’re going to re-imagine,” First Selectman Laura Francis said. “It’s gratifying that we brought it to the people and they voted.”
Residents voted 987-609 against the project. The 1,596 voters represents a turnout of roughly 30 percent, according to unofficial results from the registrar of voters.
Francis said the town is still committed to meeting residents’ programming needs by using the Durham Activity Center and other existing resources.
She said it seemed like residents were concerned about increased taxes if the school was purchased and converted.
“I know that the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen, our staff, we prepared our budget for this and we had room in our budget for this… clearly we didn’t communicate that well enough,” Francis said.
She said there are currently no other options for a community center outside the current facility.
Louis Battipaglia, Republican registrar, said turnout was above average for a referendum, which is usually in the range of 650 to 1,200 voters.
“It was a very decisive vote. There’s certainly no question which way the residents… wanted to go,” said Phil Muzio, a member of the Korn School Feasibility Assessment Committee.
He said the vote will likely put the community center issue “to bed” for the foreseeable future. Aside from seeming content with the current community center, Muzio agreed with Francis that the price tag on the project appeared to be the most significant factor for voters.
Sherry Hill, Durham recreation director, said the current activity center will continue offering programs as long as the town continues its lease for the facility.
“We’re going to be using the space as much as possible and carry on business as usual,” Hill said. “We don’t have a ‘Plan B’ at this time.”
Regional School District 13’s Board of Education, which also covers Middlefield, meanwhile, now needs to decide what happens to the Korn School building.
Board members discussed in October options that included demolishing the building at a cost of roughly $1 million between the two towns. Selling the building is an option as well, but board members expressed concerns about selling it to a private individual or entity.
Superintendent of Schools Kathryn Veronesi said the building could still be re-purposed, perhaps as a K-5 school for the district if all three other schools were then closed. This plan would mean three buildings vacant and a building project costing about $32 million, which couldn’t happen until 2021.
The building currently has an outstanding debt service of about $300,000, and the school district spends roughly $30,000 annually to maintain it.