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Editorial: Let’s try offices at West Broad

The Stonington Board of Finance appears to be playing some kind of control game when it comes to West Broad Street School.

The school, the oldest in the district, is in need of emergency repair — again. This time, it’s ceiling repairs with asbestos involved. In June 2012, the sprinkler system was found to be faulty, requiring an emergency repair so the school could open in time for the start of classes in August.

The Board of Education has proceeded with the ceiling repair project, determining that to wait for the bid process would jeopardize the start of school next month. The board has the money to cover the work, estimated at $70,000 to $100,000, but because it was not budgeted the board is requesting additional funds from the Board of Finance in the form of reimbursement.

All of this has been reported, starting with the falling ceiling plaster in May and school district Superintendent Van Riley’s plans to get the repairs going ASAP, as noted in a message that was sent to parents.

On July 16, Bill King, the district’s business manager, appeared before the Board of Finance to discuss the work and reimbursement. He was told he didn’t have the proper supporting documents to enable the board to make a decision that night and so it was put off to next month’s meeting. While King acknowledged that the School Committee anticipated the need to present such documents, he probably wasn’t expecting the response he got from one member of the finance panel.

“I have a question on this whole mess,” said Dudley Wheeler Sr. “You’re going to go spend $100,000 or more on this. I just wish the BOE would look at portable classrooms.” He went on say that the school is going to be shut down at some point, and he questioned spending so much on a building “that’s going to be useless in a few years.”

The Board of Finance, Board of Selectmen and Board of Education need to acknowledge that West Broad cannot be “useless in a few years.” The stately brick and granite building is in the heart of Pawcatuck, in a prominent spot on Route 1 surrounded by neighborhoods on all four sides. For years the school has been targeted for closure, yet no one has put forth a plan for post-closure. And while the 115-year-old building, without an elevator, might not be ideally suited for use as a school in 2014, it simply cannot be left vacant. District leaders for years have talked of renovating the West Vine Street school so it can accommodate West Broad students, and one recent option for district renovations calls for vacating the current school administration office in Old Mystic and relocating it to Pawcatuck.

Town leaders should consider using the first floor of West Broad for administration offices and renting the remaining space as offices. Uses could range from standard business use to the business incubator concept or additional low-cost or even free space for community groups and nonprofits in need of additional room. Other ideas should be welcomed. But a vacant building in that location, as we have said in the past, cannot be an option.

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