North Stonington kicks off 'miracle' school project

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

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