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North Stonington - The night of Nov. 28, 2012, the mandate was clear: Wheeler High School is here to stay.
After years of studies and even calls for the school's closure, its role as a centerpiece for North Stonington - emotionally, historically, economically - outweighed its issues. The Board of Education voted unanimously that Wednesday evening, following a public hearing on a petition to close Wheeler, to keep the high school open and come up with a plan for much-needed renovations.
Starting this month, the town will begin the process of tackling those issues under the new leadership of Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero. The Board of Education will hold a joint meeting with the Building Ad Hoc Committee Jan. 16, at which the committee will sum up the reports written and research done to date.
"The question is: How do you get there?" school board member and committee Chairman Walt Mathwich said. "And that's what has to be worked out."
Nero has said the goal will be to bring a building plan to town referendum around the beginning of 2014.
"It's not going to be a palace," board member Dave McCord said. "I foresee a more efficient, effective - emphasis on efficient - project."
With 208 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12 for the 2012-13 school year, Wheeler is one of the smallest public high schools in the state. It boasts high test scores and one-on-one attention from teachers, but its size limits it from offering some courses and extracurricular opportunities a larger school might provide. Students seem to know each other's names; on the other hand, there's no football team.
The rejuvenated effort to make headway on a building plan and align it with new educational goals comes just before the next New England Association of Schools and Colleges study begins in the fall. The study, conducted every 10 years, examines how schools match up with regional standards.
The last report was released in 2004, and Wheeler's accreditation was placed on a warning list four years later, providing a tangible jolt to dormant discussions of a long-range building plan that go back decades. The study had enumerated a number of issues with the facilities, including a lack of space for group meetings and some classes, outdated computers, a lack of technology training and support, maintenance problems and unbalanced temperature control.
The research that town officials will examine at the Jan. 16 meeting dates back to the first facilities study contracted for $25,000 in 2006 - the first in a series of attempts over a six-year period to come up with a building plan. The Board of Education paid $25,000 to architectural firm Kaestle Boos, which ultimately offered four options for the combined Wheeler Middle School/High School as well as North Stonington Elementary School. The proposals ranged from $34.3 million to $54.7 million before state reimbursement.
By spring 2012, the school board and the ad hoc committee, which was created in 2008 to examine the Wheeler issue independently, had cycled through another facilities study commissioned for about $13,000 and a demographics study for $10,000, and began exploring the question of whether to keep Wheeler at all.
Around the same time the second facilities study was contracted - under the direction of Rusty Malik, who also researched the Kaestle-Boos study and ultimately offered plans from about $14 million to $26.5 million - the ad hoc committee hired the Capitol Region Education Council to study the feasibility of closing Wheeler and paying tuition to send students to another school district.
"We said (to the boards), the question will always be out there," Mathwich said. "It only makes sense that if someone's going to ask the question, you have to have the answer."
Based on numbers given to CREC by Chuck McCarthy, the school district's business manager - and what CREC calculated to be the high school's operating budget of about $2.7 million - the study concluded that the largest possible savings would be just $482,218 if students were sent to Montville High, more than 20 miles away.
McCarthy said he stands by the study's numbers and results. But others - including school board Chairman Bob Testa - publicly questioned whether the savings could have been higher.
The study could not take into account unknowns such as unemployment payments for teachers and any potential plans for the Wheeler building.
Mathwich conceded that arriving at a definitive cost-or-savings answer was an elusive task. No matter how many scenarios were posed, Mathwich said, each led to more hypotheticals and questions.
"It's hard to truly put a number on it," he said.
But in the end, it seemed to come down to the intangible worth - in future property values, in selling houses and drawing business, in nostalgia - of a small town's only high school.
"You gotta look at what's best for the town," Mathwich said. "When you say, save money, think about - what would you do at your house? Does it save you money? Initially, no. But long-term, it does."
Nero, the new superintendent, said the meeting this month will be a chance to play catch-up on a nearly seven-year history of stalled attempts to find a solution to the Wheeler problem.
"I think we really need to have a do-over conversation of everything that has gone on, at least to bring anybody who wants to attend up to speed, especially me," he said.
After that, it's a matter of coming up with a "practical" and affordable solution.
"Right, wrong or indifferent, if you come up a with a plan, at least you have a starting point to deal with," he said.