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North Stonington celebrates reopening of renovated elementary school

North Stonington — After 13 years, a bit of controversy and a strong push from the community, the town's school building project is complete.

The $38 million undertaking, costing taxpayers $21 million after state reimbursement, culminated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly renovated elementary school Sunday afternoon. Town and school leaders, residents, state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and state Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Mystic, were in attendance for the ceremony, where past and current members of the School Modernization Committee were thanked for their dedication.

“It’s crazy to think that this nearly didn’t happen,” said First Selectman Michael Urgo. “There were so many obstacles and hurdles that stood in the way of this project. I remember back in 2014 feeling incredibly deflated as the town had rejected a second opportunity to vote in favor of school renovation.”

Still, Urgo said, the town couldn’t ignore the inadequate facilities in the old Wheeler Middle/High School building or the now-renovated elementary school. The building project was the result of more than 13 years of discussions and multiple referendums. It is expected that the town will have to include funding equal to 2 mills in the annual budget for the next 30 years to pay off the project.

The project included not only renovating the elementary school, but demolishing the old middle school, building a new combined middle/high school wing attached to the gymatorium, and ending the use of the tunnel under Norwich-Westerly Road.

Work included updating science labs, adding a new chorus and band room, all at the high school, and separating the multipurpose room from the cafeteria in the elementary school, and updating facilities to meet various building codes and standards.

"We knew the buildings had environmental concerns, and we had some outdated facilities, but we never knew at the time that we’d have COVID-19, and that having state-of-the-art climate control and air filtration would be so paramount,” Urgo said. “We have all this now. We have sprinklers. We have a safe, secure vestibule for our precious kids’ safety. Our gym floor is no longer concrete, it won’t hurt so bad to fall on, so hopefully less broken bones. Hopefully none.”

Although the town had planned to give attendees a tour of the elementary school on Sunday, COVID-19 precautions meant the ceremony had to take place entirely outdoors. Instead, participants watched a virtual tour of the school.

Principal Veronica Wilkison described the difficulties North Stonington Elementary faced before the renovations.

“As you know, the elementary school had many problems along the way, one being the PCBs that closed classrooms at the start of the 2017-18 school year,” Wilkison said. “This forced us to move the music class to the second and third grade hallway, the library to an office, the math specialist teaching in a closet, the social worker on a stage with the band — sharing times, of course — and many more moves throughout the building.”

During his address on Sunday, Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero recalled his interview for the superintendent job nine years prior.

“I remember that it was a priority of the Board of Education that we would build or renovate Wheeler High School, which was across the street. The elementary school wasn’t even a part of the discussion,” Nero said. “In 2016, I began to write my first speech because I thought we’d have a building project by then. And then I had to revise it in 2017. By 2018, I came up with, ‘Four score and seven years ago…’ We finally got it done, despite everything.”

Wheeler was put on warning in 2008 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting organization, for  having insufficient facilities that negatively affected instruction. Wheeler also was in trouble with the EPA for a variety of reasons, such as tests showing high levels of the harmful chemicals PCBs. The Board of Education and Nero considered many options, including sending every student to a nearby school, effectively ending Wheeler.

At times, Nero told The Day in 2018, he was frustrated, not just by the length of the process and the more obstinate North Stonington residents, but by Stonington Public Schools Superintendent Van Riley, who produced a study in the weeks leading up to a referendum on the building project claiming that sending Wheeler students to Stonington High School would be a financial boon for North Stonington.

Yet, North Stonington got its school and its renovations. Nero credited the kids and parents, as well as town officials, who rallied around Wheeler, many others, and Urgo, who was once chairman of the town's School Modernization Committee.

“We all feel, finally, that we’re done with the mechanics of the building project,” Nero said following Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting. “We are relieved that we can return to focusing solely on educating our students.”

Melissa Burdick, who was one of the approximately 50 people gathered for the ceremony on Sunday, said she’s been keeping up with the building project since she moved to town five years ago. Burdick is the mother of a kindergartner and second-grader who will be attending the renovated elementary school this year.

“I’m really excited that this did happen,” Burdick said. “I think it means more people will be moving to a town like this that actually has its own school system.”

One of the chief motivations behind the building project was, as Burdick said, to encourage people to live in North Stonington.

“The investment in these schools was a turning point for our town. Before we did this, we were heading down the path of a bedroom community,” Urgo said. “We had declining enrollment and an aging population. The renovation of these facilities really breathed new life in our community and showed everyone thinking about planting roots in North Stonington that we cared about our town. Had we not made this investment decision four years ago, we’d be in a much different community today.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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