North Stonington kicks off 'miracle' school project

North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero, left, explains to a group of students how to participate in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday, putting to an end months of debate over a project that previously was approved by only a three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero, left, explains to a group of students how to participate in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday, putting to an end months of debate over a project that previously was approved by only a three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

North Stonington — Twelve hours after a second referendum Thursday reaffirmed support, students, staff and residents huddled together in a maroon mass on the frozen school soccer field Friday morning to break ground on a school project that almost didn't happen.

The gathering followed a landslide vote of 1,352-611 to reapprove the school modernization plan, which originally passed by a three-vote margin in 2016. Two petitions to the town at the end of January that questioned the town's ability to pay for the project forced the second referendum less than a month before the town was slated to break ground on the project.

The $38.5 million project, the product of 13 years of discussions, would renovate the elementary school, demolish the middle school and build a new middle and high school wing next to the gymatorium, among other improvements to meet various building codes, state educational standards and federal mandates.

After grants from the state and the United States Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, taxpayers will be paying about $21 million.

The morning was a show of North Stonington and Wheeler pride, with the Wheeler Lion mascot leading the parade of elementary school students to the field and town board members sitting on two hay trailers next to the podium. High school students held up a banner with the hashtag #BuildingIt, a continuation of the #BuildIt tag supporters of the project had used for the referendum. The middle and high school chorus sang at the ceremony, and students' drones buzzed overhead to record the occasion.

"In three or four months, I will have completed my 47th year in public education, and there has never been a day or night like last night in my life," Superintendent Peter Nero told the crowd, taking off his winter jacket to reveal a Wheeler Lions sweatshirt. "North Stonington Elementary School and Wheeler Middle/High School lives."

Board of Education Chairwoman Christine Wagner and School Modernization Building Committee Chairwoman Pamela Potemri also spoke at the ceremony, highlighting the work of volunteers and the town's dedication to its students through the tumult of the petitions.

"The project isn't about the building, it really is about our students," Wagner said. "We need to provide our district a well-thought-out, updated facility where learning can reach new heights and our children can grow in a safe and secure environment."

"As a committee, we worked and we will continue to work to build you the schools you have earned, deserve and will make you proud to say you are a graduate of North Stonington Public Schools," Potemri said.

First Selectman Mike Urgo, who inherited what he dubbed "The Miracle Project" when he was elected in November, compared the process to the plot of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story."

"The reason I love this movie is because the rebels stood very little chance of success but prevailed nonetheless," he said, citing anthropologist Margaret Mead's quote about small groups accomplishing big things. "Finally, through all the challenges, we have arrived at today. And it was not easy, but most things worth fighting for are not."

One student from each grade, led by Nero, grabbed a hard hat and shovel from Downes Construction to dig the ceremonial first scoops of dirt for the project. The gymatorium addition is expected to be completed by October, and the elementary school renovations are scheduled to finish by 2020.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

Wheeler High School senior Chris Orr, 17, raises his shovel in triumph after joining fellow North Stonington students for a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday that put an end to months of debate that over the project that previously had been approved by only a three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Wheeler High School senior Chris Orr, 17, raises his shovel in triumph after joining fellow North Stonington students for a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday that put an end to months of debate that over the project that previously had been approved by only a three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Giovanni Berardinelli, right, project superintendent for Downes Construction Company, hands out hard hats to students from the North Stonington school participating in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday, putting to an end months of debate over a project that previously was approved by only a three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Giovanni Berardinelli, right, project superintendent for Downes Construction Company, hands out hard hats to students from the North Stonington school participating in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday, putting to an end months of debate over a project that previously was approved by only a three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Students from the North Stonington schools are joined by members of the community to celebrate a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Students from the North Stonington schools are joined by members of the community to celebrate a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Wheeler high school students Chris Orr, 17, left, and Gracie Anderson, 16, collect their hard hats and shovels to participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Wheeler high school students Chris Orr, 17, left, and Gracie Anderson, 16, collect their hard hats and shovels to participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Students from the North Stonington schools are joined by members of the community to celebrate a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, February 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday that put an end to months of debate that followed a previous vote that approved the project by a narrow three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Students from the North Stonington schools are joined by members of the community to celebrate a ceremonial groundbreaking for a school construction project Friday, February 9, 2018. Voters approved the disputed project in a referendum Thursday that put an end to months of debate that followed a previous vote that approved the project by a narrow three-vote margin. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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