North Stonington residents hear options, costs for school renovation

North Stonington - The Board of Education and a Wheeler Gymnatorium music room packed with residents and town officials heard a presentation Wednesday night of several school renovation proposals.

Though a renovation of the school district's facilities has been in the works for more than a decade, the project stalled amid debate over whether to close Wheeler Middle School/High School.

The district hired Rusty Malik of Quisenberry Arcari Architects - the same architect who completed renovation scenarios for the Board of Education in 2006 and again in 2012 - to render several options and calculate their costs in time for the upcoming New England Association of Schools and Colleges report. In 2008, NEASC put Wheeler's accreditation on a warning list.

"With the NEASC visit coming next year, we knew we had to do something," said Walt Mathwich, chairman of the committee.

Malik said that while the majority of the 50-plus-year-old structures have "good bones," any renovation would need to address a number of challenges associated with the buildings' age and outdated layout. These include the health code issues of housing the elementary school cafeteria and gym in the same space, the security concerns of crossing Route 2 to get from the high school to the gymnatorium, poor science lab conditions and asbestos.

Malik emphasized that these are just a few of many concerns.

The first option would build a new gymnasium/auditorium on the north side of Route 2, while the old gym and central office could revert to the town for alternate municipal programs. This plan would require an additional 30,050 square feet of space and cost about $28.85 million. The town's share of the cost could be as low as $16.22 million or as high as $20 million, depending on how much the state reimburses the town.

The second would keep the existing gymnatorium and calls for an enclosed, secure connector for students and staff to cross Route 2 safely. About 15,650 in additional square footage would be constructed, and the total cost would be about $28.7 million. The town could pay as little as $16.14 million or as much as $20.7 million.

Additions in both plans would include new science labs, a new cafeteria and kitchen, and space for the music program. The lower level of the building would house the middle school, while a second floor would house the high school. Both would also include a new, secure main entrance.

The proposal for North Stonington Elementary School calls for 11,700 square feet in additions and would cost $18.14 million, with the town paying $11.25 million for its share.

Malik also presented a third plan for an entirely new school - a much costlier project with a 10 percent lower state reimbursement rate. The entire cost would be about $87.5 million, he said, and would require about 40 acres of space.

Superintendent Peter Nero said that while the NEASC visit is part of the motivation behind solidifying renovation plans, the more pressing concern is addressing school safety issues, particularly those associated with the Route 2 split and the layout of the elementary school.

Though this was the first time the renovation plans were made public - and though they have not been narrowed down to one - Nero is looking to put a proposal before voters in time for the May budget referendum in order to meet the deadline to receive state reimbursement next fiscal year.


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