Impassioned residents speak out on future of Wheeler High School

North Stonington - Residents called upon art, song and American history during a public hearing held by the Board of Education Wednesday night for a petition calling for the closure of Wheeler High School.

About 200 members of the community packed the North Stonington Elementary School gym, overflowing the folding-chair setup and standing in the back to hear or air their own views on a years-long debate over whether to keep open the state's smallest high school and conduct much-needed renovations, or to shutter it in favor of busing students to other school districts.

A feasibility study conducted by the Capitol Region Education Council last year, for which the town paid $10,000, concluded that tuitioning out the town's students would result in negligible savings - anywhere from $20,000 to $436,000, depending on which schools the students would switch to - and in some scenarios may even cost more. The study also did not include the cost of paying unemployment to teachers and staff newly without a job.

The biggest savings would also mean a 20-mile bus ride each way to school in Montville.

Resident Donna Feldmann, who wrote and filed the 179-signature petition about three weeks ago, cited the small size of the student body and the cost to taxpayers, which she called "abuse."

The high school has about 220 students. Feldmann said the cost is $15,400 per student. After the meeting, the school district's business manager, Chuck McCarthy, said the state Department of Education calculated the cost during the 2010-2011 school year, the latest figure available, as $14,157. Editor's note: This paragraph corrects an earlier version of this story.

When told she'd exceeded her allotted three minutes of speaking time, Feldmann brandished a laminated copy of the classic Norman Rockwell painting, "Freedom of Speech," depicting a flannel-clad man standing up at a New England town meeting, and called out its title.

The other 16 residents who stepped up to the podium spoke largely and emotionally in favor of keeping Wheeler open, with just two in support of its closure. Parents, teachers and even those without students in the school system waxed poetic about the high school, drawing on their own memories or the experiences of their children.

"In many ways, it is the heart and soul of North Stonington," said Bing Bartick, who brought a poster of his own - a smiling green worm protruding from an apple atop a stack of books, with the words "Wheeler High forever" and "Keep the lions roaring," after the school's mascot.

Others spoke with more restraint in their support. Vilma Gregoropoulos said she wants to know exactly how taxpayer dollars toward the schools are being spent but called it "penny-wise and pound-foolish" to close the high school.

Joe Gross also spoke against the school's closure, but emphasized the need for renovations.

"We have to bring our facilities up to the 21st century," he said.

While rounds of applause followed most speakers, the biggest hands of the night went to the five students who spoke - even the two who said they would like the chance to attend schools with a wider range of classes and extracurriculars.

One woman echoed the argument of eighth-graders Atalaya Murphy and Faith Nee, saying she had met three students who moved out of North Stonington schools in order to attend schools with "better class options, better teachers, better facilities." Editor's note: This statement was incorrectly attributed in an earlier version of this article.

"To me, there's no choice," she said. "Close Wheeler."

But senior Asa Palmer offered an impassioned argument for the superiority of a small, intimate school, where he can walk into Principal Chris Sandford's office at any time without going through a bureaucratic process and where he knows every face he passes in the hallway.

Following the public hearing, the board reiterated the stance it took back in March on keeping the high school open. It voted unanimously Wednesday on a motion to begin discussing building renovations and developing a long-range plan in January, all of which will be put to a referendum vote in 2014.

a.isaacs@theday.com

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