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New London - Forty years of everyday use and lack of maintenance have taken a visible toll on New London High School, from the decaying concrete wall behind the shuttered swimming pool to the graffiti-marred lockers, from the doorless bathroom stalls in the boys locker room to the exposed pipe in a hallway ceiling where a major leak had to be repaired earlier this month.
That's just for starters. There are many doorways and an elevator too narrow for most wheelchairs, gymnasium bleachers so old they can bend and break if not opened with care, a leaky roof and windows that provide scant protection from the elements.
In December, 50-degree temperatures in a classroom used for special needs students prompted a visit from Ledge Light Health District, Principal William "Tommy" Thompson said. Because of difficulty in finding parts to fit the old heating system, repairs took a week and a half. The students were relocated to another room for that time.
"It's either 90 or it's 40," Tommy Ferino, lead custodian at the school, said, describing the building's inefficient heating system to group of city and school officials during a tour of the building Saturday morning. "And pretty much throughout the whole building, the windows are in horrible shape. The hinges are broken, there are no seals and the wind and the rain comes through them."
Tour guides for this exploration of the 180,000-square foot high school, educational home for some 900 students, were Tim MacDuff, chief of operations for the school system, and Michael Sorano, architect with Friar Associates, the firm hired to develop plans for a renovated and a new high school. Principal Thompson and Superintendent Nicholas Fischer offered their insights along the way.
Attending were city councilors, Board of Education members and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, all with hopes of gaining a better understanding of the building's needs and how best to proceed. The school has been placed on warning by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that it could lose accreditation if the building isn't repaired soon. Thompson said that would hurt students' chances at getting into colleges and technical schools and ultimately depress property values.
"About 90 percent of the issues that are being brought up today were in a 1988 accreditation report," he said, as MacDuff showed the group structural deficiencies in the library. "I imagine they're losing patience with the lack of progress."
In a hallway in the freshman wing, Thompson paused beside a water fountain.
"This is one of the only working water fountains in the school," he said. "Students are losing instructional time to find a working water fountain."
Throughout the tour, councilors and school board members asked questions about the relative merits and costs of building a new school versus a top-to-bottom renovation or doing minimum repairs and handicapped access upgrades to satisfy the accreditation panel.
"Or we may be able to do some sort of hybrid between renovation and knocking the whole building down," MacDuff said. In that option, the gymnasium and auditorium would be spared and refurbished, while the rest of the building torn down and replaced.
"We're going to have to run a lot of different scenarios to figure out what would be the best bang for the buck," Sorano said.
The city is eligible to receive 78 percent reimbursement from the state for "all eligible construction costs" for school renovation projects, Sorano said. The reimbursement rate for a new building is 68 percent, "unless you can prove that new construction would be more cost efficient than renovations," in which case the higher rate would apply, he said. In the case of the high school, there are likely to be many more problems not yet discovered, both he and Fischer said, so a new building may prove to be the better choice.
Councilor Adam Sprecace said preliminary estimates for the cost to the city, once the state reimbursement is factored in, range from $20 million to do minimum renovations and upgrades, to $28 million to "renovate as new," to $32 million for a new building. The estimate for the total cost of the new building is $87.8 million.
The council took up the high school question anew earlier this month when it voted unanimously to reconsider a decision it made last year to renovate the school to meet federal and state requirements. After the tour, Sprecace said school officials need to present a more thorough analysis for the council and the public of the pros and cons of the various options.
Mayor Finizio said he's convinced city and school officials need to start working to develop a consensus on the best course of action.
"The condition of the building is deplorable," he said. "We obviously need to act and act soon. We need to make a decision shortly on how to proceed. We want to be doing a project within the next two years."