Ledyard celebrates completion of two major school projects

Ledyard — Superintendent Jay Hartling can finally take the hard hat out of his trunk.

With ribbon cutting ceremonies last week, the renovation projects at Gallup Hill School and Ledyard Middle School — $28 million and $40 million, respectively — are finally complete, the result of eight years of work involving three superintendents and several town committees.

Following years of planning and a referendum in January 2015, groundbreaking ceremonies were held in April 2017. Both schools were "build as new" projects: the new wings were constructed first, and then everyone moved into them in September 2018 so the old wings could be renovated.

At the middle school for example, core classes are now in a new three-story academic wing on the field side of the school, and the existing wing where the 1970s cluster-style classrooms will now house the cafeteria, media center, auditorium and classrooms for band, chorus, art and technology education, among other spaces.

"The state reimburses at a higher rate for renovation as new, so it becomes a more economical approach for the town, not to mention that for a beautiful town like Ledyard, we like to preserve our open space," Hartling said. "When you look at both Gallup Hill and Ledyard Middle, they were schools that were built in the late '60s, early '70s, ... they were significantly antiquated and in dramatic need of repair and refurbishment."

The projects also paved the way for redistricting, with a final plan approved in March.  As part of the 2015 referendum, Ledyard Center School was closed at the end of the 2018-19 school year. About 200 students in grades K-5 were reassigned to Gallup Hill, about 50 reassigned to Gales Ferry and Juliet Long. All sixth-grade students in the district will now attend the middle school.

The middle school also gets a new principal, Ryan Earley, who started this week. He said he's looking forward to helping the district redefine the middle school experience for its students and supporting them during the transition.

Reactions

Hartling called the project completion a "collective sigh of relief" for the district, noting that faculty and staff kept their focus on delivering a quality education despite having to move classrooms multiple times. He also commended the Ledyard Center School faculty and staff for maintaining a positive environment for the kids even as the school prepared to close.

At both ribbon cuttings, he said the spirit of the old schools lives on in the new buildings.

Speaking at the ribbon cuttings, Town Council Chairwoman Linda Davis highlighted the amount of volunteer work that went into producing the two schools. She said that building committee chairman Steve Juskiewicz in particular dedicated countless hours and pored over every detail to make sure everything was just right. She added "every major project needs a Steve."

Heather and Adam Dalton brought their two younger daughters to the Gallup Hill ribbon cutting Monday. As a former Ledyard Center family, all three kids in the Dalton family were impacted by the redistricting process; Faith, going into sixth grade, is going to the middle school, while Tessa, going into third grade, and Natalie, going into first grade, will be at Gallup Hill.

Tessa Dalton said she was glad to be going back to school, with new things at the new school and a lot of her Ledyard Center classmates. She also made sure she left a little note on the desk of Ashlee Konow, her second-grade teacher at LCS who also made the move to Gallup Hill.

"Looking at this and comparing this to Ledyard Center School, it's so much greater," she said.

Adam Dalton, a Gallup Hill alumnus, compared the open house to "the first day of school on steroids" and said he enjoyed walking around and trying to figure out where his old classrooms would have been relative to the new layout. He liked that there was a lot of Ledyard Center in the new Gallup Hill building to help kids who may be nervous about going to a new school.

Heather Dalton said the new school is clean and beautiful and she feels comfortable sending her children there. As a teacher herself, she appreciated the amount of behind-the-scenes work done to get the school ready, especially the teachers who got their rooms set up early so families could visit during the open house.

First-grade teacher Kathy Colosi opened her classroom for the night for parents and students to check out. With more than 30 years teaching at Gallup Hill, she's happy to be back in her old classroom, thoughtfully redesigned with new furniture and technology. She said she's looking forward building a new community with the combined population of Gallup Hill and former Ledyard Center students and staff.

"I think it's going to be interesting going from a little small kind of neighborhood school to the largest elementary, and I think that's going to be a different shift, but I think it's exciting for the kids and the staff," she said.

Other projects

In addition to major overhauls at Gallup Hill and the middle school, Hartling said the Board of Education has been working with Town Council on smaller projects at the high school. Over the last few years, the bathrooms have been renovated and the art rooms updated.

The middle school project also didn't include a space for the growing cycling club, so a multipurpose building was added to house the club's bikes and school maintenance equipment.

Ledyard High School is the site for the next major project, a renovation of the track and football field. Hartling said he's been pushing for it for the last 10 months, but discussions have been in the works for at least 10 years with the project delayed due to lack of funding. He said the work is critically needed and will only get more expensive the longer it is delayed. For example, he said, drainage problems will eventually threaten the structural integrity of the new bleachers.

Plans call for addressing grading and drainage issues with the track and football field. The latter would be replaced with artificial turf with lines to accommodate soccer and lacrosse games and allow use of the field by town recreational programs.

Jim Buonocore, the high's school assistant principal and athletic director, said the new track and field would provide a safe and sustainable playing space and give the community something to be proud of.

Groundbreaking is Oct. 14, which will allow the varsity football team to play their Sept. 13 and 20 home games. He said opponents for their remaining home games have been willing to work with him to play at their fields; Fitch will host the Thanksgiving game this year, and Ledyard will host next year.

The home meets for the cross-country team, which uses the track as the start and finish line, are on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1. Gym classes will also be mostly inside by the time construction starts.

The impact on outdoor track, however, is harder to predict because the installation of track surface is more susceptible to weather-related delays. Buonocore said May was a reasonable estimate, and even if there are problems finishing up, he's happy to have the new facility.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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