NORTH STONINGTON — This will be a year of change for the students and staff heading back to school Aug. 22 in North Stonington.
The big switch will come in March, when middle and high school students will move from the current Wheeler middle-high school building to the new building that is rising along Route 2, next to the existing Gymnatorium building.
When the new structure is finished in March 2019, the district’s elementary school students will move from their existing building and occupy the current Wheeler middle-high school while the elementary building undergoes a comprehensive renovation. That part of the project will be completed in March 2020.
The $38.5 million project got off the ground in March, and it will take a year to complete the new building, Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero said.
“It’s not been easy,” Nero said.
That might be an understatement, as the project faced years of hurdles. The most recent was from some residents who challenged the legality of a 2017 referendum to proceed with the project. The town held a second vote in February to be sure. Residents overwhelmingly supported the project. Shovels went in the ground.
In the meantime, the schools took hits from both the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and the EPA for reasons related to the existing buildings. The association placed Wheeler on warning in 2008. In 2017, the EPA put the schools on its monitoring list and three classrooms were closed because of elevated PCB levels.
The work will lift the weight of the EPA and NEASC actions from the town’s schools.
“We’ll no longer be under the ‘tyranny of he urgent,’ dealing with the urgent problems,” Nero said. “It will push all that aside.”
From now until March, students and staff members will occupy the existing Wheeler middle and high school building, which was also the case at the end of the previous school year.
“It won’t be any different from last year, except for the new parents and kids who are coming in,” Nero said. “They will find it to be a little cramped and crowded. But it’s working.”
The new building will be “buttoned up,” or sealed off from the outside weather, by November, and completed around March 1, Nero said. Students and staff will move in after a two-week vacation in mid-March.
“Patience and flexibility will be the key,” said Nero. It’s the first time in his 43-year career he’s headed up the opening of a new school building.
Some difficulty will come into play during the winter indoor sports season, when away practices and games will be the temporary norm because of the closed Gymnatorium.
Nero credits Athletic Director Ellen Turner and Pamela Potemri, chairwoman of the School Modernization Building Committee, with orchestrating those changes and making sure any hiccups are addressed.
Last year, the staff undertook the Herculean task of moving the central administration offices, including all the furniture, office equipment and paperwork, out of the Gymnatorium building in the space of a week, Nero said.
Now, Nero and other administrators share a cramped space in the existing middle-high school building until the work is done.
“My office is a mess,” he said.
About 750 students attend the North Stonington schools, including grades K-6 in the elementary school and the new middle-high school designed for grades 7-12.
“These kids are going to have a story to tell,” Nero said. “Down the line two years from now, we’re all going to be in a new facility.”