STONINGTON — For the next three to five years, the old West Broad Street School will serve as the new home for students from St. Michael's.
A second round of public comments on Wednesday regarding the lease of the school to St. Michael the Archangel Church drew a mix of significant support and concerns from the community. Members of the Board of Selectmen then voted unanimously to enter into the lease. First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said the decision was made as a short-term solution in the best interest of the neighborhood and in the economic interest of the town.
"I know $300 is low for this school but, from a purely economic standpoint, it's about the huge responsibility for maintenance that (St. Michael) is taking on," Chesebrough said. "The roof is leaking, the gutters need to be replaced and this is work that would need to be done, costs that we would need to pay for no matter what."
The lease, which was written in late December following a lengthy negotiation between town attorneys and representatives of the St. Michael School, will require the school to pay a base rent of $300 per month for three years to use the building only as an elementary and middle school. The agreement also includes a mutual option to extend the lease for two additional years.
As part of the lease, St. Michael's will be responsible for the cost of all utilities including water, sewer, gas and trash removal, as well as general maintenance and upkeep including janitorial services, repairing electrical wiring and above-ground pipes. The school is also responsible for taking care of playgrounds, parking lots, and snow and ice removal.
Under the resolution passed on Wednesday, the lease will also includes amendments to allow for insurance changes making the playground accessible for public use, and would further grant access to the town to show the property to developers and potential buyers during non-school hours. Chesebrough said she had spoken directly with the Rev. Dennis Perkins, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel, and he was amenable to these changes.
The economic impact of the lease agreement has been a point of contention for weeks. The debate continued Wednesday as several residents questioned the town's commitment to immediate repairs.
Among the concerns expressed by residents were town responsibilities for an estimated $500,000 in capital improvements, of which $235,000 would need to be completed in the next year. Cost estimates include $10,000 to repair a boiler, $10,000 for emergency exit signage to bring the building into compliance with fire safety codes, and $225,000 for roof repairs.
In addition, the town has proposed to address exterior masonry problems over time. The first phase of the project would cost $175,000 in 2021, with another $100,000 needed for the second phase in 2022.
"When you look at the numbers, there are $522,000 in capital improvements that must be done between 2020 and 2022. This is a loss to the town," said Jim Lathrop, owner of Best Energy on Mechanic Street and a member of the town's Economic Development Commission. "The other issue I have is there is no game plan as to what happens after the three-year base or five-year option."
Residents including Kristine Halleck, of Pawcatuck Avenue, and Stonington resident Rudy V. Pancaro, president and CEO of Epcom World Industries, expressed similar concerns about a lack of long-term plans as well as the low rental cost.
Halleck said she was not opposed to using the property as a school, but urged the town to find ways to maintain the property long-term through a variety of historic preservation options that would sustain the classic architecture and address repair needs while simultaneously exploring a variety of uses for the building's interior.
Chesebrough, Selectwoman June Strunk and Selectwoman Deborah Downie all said the town reserves the right to continue to explore these options. Paul Sartor, chairman of the Stonington Facilities Committee, also told the audience that the committee's recommendation that the building be leased to St. Michael's was never intended to be anything more than a short-term solution while long-term options are explored.
Former First Selectman Rob Simmons, who also spoke before the board before its decision, further noted that in the years he was involved with the process, St. Michael was the only organization or entity to come forward with a proposal.
"The three-year lease gives both the town and St. Michael School future options should the agreement not work out or should an alternative present itself, and the West Broad Street School will not become an unoccupied relic subject to arson, vandalism and deterioration that can occur when a building is left vacant," Simmons said.
In the end, the decision to lease the school drew a strong round of applause, including several neighbors of the facility who expressed gratitude that the property would no longer be vacant and would be used as a school once again.
"Living in this neighborhood, that school is the first thing I see every day when I walk out my door. What it is about for those of us who live here is to see kids at that school again," said Ashley Gillece, a resident of Moss Street. "To us, that means more than any options we've heard proposed."