Stonington's shameful failure to improve its schools

A decade has passed since the renovated and expanded Stonington High School was completed. That is about double the time it took the K-12 School Building Committee to organize itself, prioritize its work and shepherd the high school building project from concept to completion.

Children who entered kindergarten at that time have completed their freshman year of high school. Those children, as well as their peers as much as five years their junior, spent their elementary school years in schools that the building committee and education officials recognized as inadequate and in need of upgrades some 15 years ago.

The K-12 Building Committee was so named because its task was to consider necessary upgrades, expansions and improvements to all the town's schools. The committee's study concluded the high school had the most pressing need for renovation and expansion, but the committee's intent always was to also address all schools, most notably the elementary schools that have not seen significant upgrades for decades.

Unfortunately, the committee was not allowed to complete its work. As such, roofs deteriorated, technological capabilities choked, security systems got more outdated, Pawcatuck children remained split into two too-tiny schools and fresh air and natural light remained nonexistent in some classrooms. All this happened while the town's political leaders prevented residents from being allowed to decide the fate of an elementary school building project. Hundreds of students have been the losers in this shameful game.

Perhaps the saddest result is exemplified by what has happened at West Broad Street School. A proposed elevator to make the school's third-floor auditorium accessible to physically challenged students and adults long ago slipped off the town's list of proposed capital improvements. Two years ago, the town spent $90,000 to make emergency repairs to the school's sprinklers. A school boiler was replaced. This spring, part of a stairwell ceiling collapsed and the fire marshal ordered the third floor closed after finding sagging ceiling tiles.

Ironically, town leaders more than a century ago demonstrated great vision and foresight in planning for West Broad Street School. The local newspaper reported it this way: "The people assembled decided that the schools of the district should be second to none in this section of Rhode Island or Connecticut and to that end expressed themselves almost unanimously in favor of the best equipment possible."

Those long-ago leaders recognized that what was best for schoolchildren also was best for the whole community. More than a century later, it is a travesty not only for the schoolchildren, but also for the whole community, that such vision appears absent. In the past several years, members of both the boards of selectmen and finance have stymied a school building project.

Officials refused for several years to reconstitute the building committee that had been forced into dormancy by the sagging economy. Another year slipped away when the new committee was given no money. Now, two of the selectmen have stonewalled the appointment of the Board of Education's chosen representative to the committee. Numerous town leaders quietly continue to pledge to ensure no school constructions begin within four or more years. So, although the committee now has the money necessary to begin the planning phase of a building project, its work remains threatened and stonewalled.

The school building project has been stalled far too long. Taxpayers are paying for costly repairs to outdated, inefficient schools with crumbing infrastructures. Town leaders should take a lesson from their predecessors of a century ago and recognize what's in the best interest of the education of our children is in the best interest of all. Stop stalling this building project and find the political will to advocate for it and move it forward.

Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald served on the K-12 School Building Committee for more than eight years and on the Board of Education for eight years.


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