Groton Town Council wants panel to oversee school projects

Groton - When the Town Council authorized the Board of Education to apply for several grants Tuesday, it also followed up on sentiments several councilors expressed in a work meeting last month. It put oversight of the projects in the hands of the Permanent School Building Committee rather than the school board.

The four grant applications to the state Department of Education include two that seek funds for three portable buildings for West Side and Cutler middle schools. Each portable has two classrooms. The six classrooms will help accommodate students from Fitch Middle School, which closes in June. The cost of the portable buildings is estimated at just over $1 million.

Another grant would offset the $280,000 cost of removal of asbestos floor tiles at Mary Morrisson Elementary School.

And another grant would provide funds to repair 28,000 square feet of roof at Fitch High School, estimated at $625,000.

Funding for the portables already has been approved by the council and Representative Town Meeting. Capital improvement money has been earmarked for preliminary work at Fitch and Mary Morrisson.

Wes Greenleaf, the school district's facilities director, said the grants could cover as much as 57 percent of the costs of the three projects.

He also told the council at its work meeting last month that projects this size generally are managed by the school board.

"The Permanent School Building Committee usually has oversight when there are more complicated projects," Greenleaf said.

Councilor Bruce Flax said he did not want these projects to encounter problems such as those that occurred when the Fitch baseball field was renovated, a project overseen by the Board of Education. More than $140,000 in invoices from that project are the subject of a dispute between the town and the Mystic Schooners, a team in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

"In light of the perception ... of what happened with the ball field, I think it's safer to have the Permanent School Building Committee do it," Flax said.

The baseball field project began when an anonymous benefactor donated $500,000 to upgrade Fitch High School's playing field dugouts and to build a press box and bleachers to meet the league's facilities requirements so the Mystic Schooners could play there. The team was expected to pay an additional $80,000 to install lights.

When the bidding was complete last fall, the work came in at $560,000. It later grew to $640,000 when the lighting was added.

Schools Superintendent Paul Kadri said that when he learned the team was in no position to borrow money to cover the costs above the $500,000 donation, he proposed using money the district receives from the U.S. Department of Defense to cover the overage.

Ultimately, in December, the council spent $139,000 to pay four vendors who had done the work on the field but had gone unpaid for more than four months.

Last month, the council voted to try to negotiate an amendment to the Schooners' contract in an attempt to be reimbursed by the team.

Mayor Heather Bond Somers made it clear in last month's work meeting that she has more confidence in Greenleaf than she has in the school board.

"I'm not comfortable putting the Board of Education in charge of these anymore. No offense to you. I think you know exactly what's going on," Somers told Greenleaf. "We have failed in other areas, and we as a council cannot let that happen again."

c.potter@theday.com

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