Focus is now on improving town's elementary schools

The West Vine Street School in Pawcatuck. TIM COOK/THE DAY

More than a dozen years ago, school officials first identified a long list of problems with the town's three elementary schools.

Among them were that the schools are undersized, need improved heating and cooling systems, new roofs and windows, more parking and improved handicapped accessibility. Those problems remain and in some cases have worsened

But a project to address those needs has never come to fruition as town officials have balked at adding to the town's debt load, especially during the recession.

Meanwhile, several other projects have been approved during that time. The town renovated and expanded the high school for $39 million, built a new police station, approved upgrades to the town's three aging sewer plants and just recently approved $2.7 million to build an artificial turf football field and rebuild other fields at the high school and another $3.5 million for repair roads.

But now the effort to upgrade the elementary schools may finally be back on track.

Last week, the newly reconstituted K-12 School Building Committee held its first meeting.

The Board of Selectmen recently reactivated the committee in light of the school board's continued push for the project and the discovery last year of major sprinkler-system problems at West Broad Street School, which cost $90,000 to fix and threatened to delay the opening of school in August.

First Selectman Ed Haberek told the committee the elementary school issue needs to be addressed.

"This is an important project for the town," he said.

While the committee has just begun its work, it appears that one popular option would be to close the 113-year-old West Broad Street School and expand and renovate West Vine Street School so it accommodates all Pawcatuck elementary school students.

West Broad currently serves third- and fourth-grade students in Pawcatuck, while younger students attend West Vine.

Superintendent of Schools Van Riley told the committee that it makes more sense to expand and renovate West Vine Street as renovating West Broad would be very expensive.

The committee, however, has been given the responsibility of coming up with its own options and recommendation.

It will now review educational specifications, enrollment projections and a five-year-old elementary school renovation plan which needs to be updated.

One potential stumbling block is that the committee needs to ask the Board of Finance for an additional appropriation of about $50,000 to hire a consultant to develop a plan to present to the town. The finance board has opposed going forward with a project in the past, most recently in 2009 and 2011.

The committee plans to wait until after residents approve the proposed 2013-14 budget before requesting the money from the finance board.

Haberek told the committee he is not sure how big of a project voters would approve, but said he would have Director of Finance Maryanna Stevens talk to the commission about how various-sized projects would affect the town's debt.

The cost of the project will not be known until the plans are created. State reimbursement for school projects has now fallen to about 24 percent, Haberek said.

He suggested that the committee employ the strategy used last year to get voters to approve the road and athletic field projects. He said town officials and committee members agreed on how much voters would be willing to spend and then designed the project within that total.

"We started by saying this is the amount of money we can spend. What can we get for that?" he said. "It was dictated by our bonding ability."

While much of last week's initial discussion was about West Vine and West Broad, resident Bill Sternberg cautioned the committee that Deans Mill School also has needs that need to be addressed as well.

The committee may also consider what to do with West Broad if it is closed as well as the current school administration building in Old Mystic. Haberek said he would like the town to have a plan for any building that it plans to shutter.

He said St. Michael Church in Pawcatuck is looking for a building for its school. He also cautioned the committee that there is a vocal group of residents who do not want West Broad closed.

The committee, which elected parent and Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Rob Marseglia as its chairman, plans to next meet on March 11.



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