Editor’s note: At the end of each year, The Sun provides an opportunity for area school superintendents and town leaders to reflect on the year and, if they wish, discuss plans for the new year.
As superintendent, I can say it’s been one heck of a year! I have been in public education for 43 years. 2018 was, by far, one of the most interesting, exhausting, challenging, exciting, and often times, stressful years in my career. I look back to when I was hired and the issues that I along with the Board of Education was facing. Prior to my official start, I asked for at least three cartons full of documents pertaining to the school district. I wanted to “bone up” and gain a more intimate knowledge of North Stonington Elementary School and Wheeler Middle/High School. The documents included test scores, budgets, collective bargaining unit contracts, food and bus services contracts, policy manuals, etc.
One of the first and most important documents that I requested and read was Wheeler’s New England Associations of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) 2004 decennial visiting teams’ report. While it is generally an evaluation of the middle/high school and was filled with commendations, it also gave me an appreciation for the entire district, Pre-K to 12. After reading it, my first revelation was what a wonderful school district it was. I also remember what was most prominently written in the NEASC report, which was the need for the town to move forward and improve the facilities. That was a focus of the recommendations in several areas of the report. It was evident that if facilities weren’t addressed in a timely manner, NEASC would re-examine Wheeler’s accreditation, which it did. Four years after the initial report, in 2008, NEASC placed Wheeler on “warning.” “Warning” is one step away from a school being placed on “probation.” As one can imagine, neither status is desirable. NEASC felt that four years was enough time to have a viable facilities-improvement plan.
In my second year, the ad-hoc building committee was moving forward developing a facilities plan. We all realized that it would take a lot of time and hard work to come up with an affordable plan to convince the residents. There was a lot of work to be done. It was eight years after the NEASC report and the district had not finalized the required educational specifications, an important first step. It also became clearer to me at town meetings that there were many in town who would have difficulty supporting an affordable plan and others that would not support any plan.
During the 2013-14 school year, two proposals were brought to town meetings and referendums. The first one failed miserably. A couple of months later, a scaled-down version of the ad-hoc plan went before the voters and it failed too. However, when we studied the results of the second referendum, it seemed that we were moving closer to a yes vote. In my mind, the facilities plan had a heartbeat, albeit a slight one.
A short time after the second failed referendum, a resolution was passed by the Board of Selectmen to develop a “Tri-Board” (consisting of members of the Board of Education, Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen, school staff and residents) as an overseer of the ad-hoc building committee to pursue the development of an affordable “school modernization project.” The goal was to completely modernize all of our schools for students in grades Pre-K through 12. After nearly two years and hundreds of hours at countless meetings, a school modernization plan was sent to a referendum. The plan was significantly different from the failed plans and was more affordable, as well.
After all the public meetings, it went to a referendum, and on May 16, 2016, it passed. It passed by three votes!
No matter how many votes it was approved by, we could now complete all the necessary applications, solidify financing and the architect would do the necessary prep work in the first year. The Ad-hoc Building Committee became the Building Committee and would bid and select a contractor. The town was due to break ground immediately after the state’s budget passed by June 30, 2017.
Unfortunately, the groundbreaking had to be postponed as the state budget didn’t pass until late fall.
So now, we are finally ready to break ground. Not quite. Two citizens exercised their right to file a petition to bring the barely passed referendum from 2016 to another vote. That was last January, 14 years after the first NEASC report and after 10 years of Wheeler being on warning status. So, following all appropriate statutes, the first selectman called for a town meeting prior to a vote that could once and for all move the project forward or stop it altogether, leaving everyone with what next?
Personally, I have been to more town meetings here in North Stonington than I attended in my former district that I grew up in and worked in for 34 years. When I entered the town meeting in the gymnatorium that evening, it was a totally different atmosphere from any other of the town meetings that I have attended in my seven years here. The gymnatorium was packed. The atmosphere was vibrant! After the preliminaries, the floor was open for public comment. I saw students, parents, residents, and senior citizens come to the microphone and when all was said and done, they ended with, “BUILD IT!” If I were to sum it up in a text message, it was an “OMG!” moment. The town rallied around its most important asset, its schools. Of course, considering the history of the project, my usual paranoia began to set in; in my mind I thought, “Maybe only the people supporting the project came to the town meeting?”
On Feb. 8, 2018, the town resoundingly voted 1,352-611, by over a 2-1 margin, to move forward with the project. Twelve hours after the referendum was officially closed, every student and staff member along with local and state officials and our architect for the last 10 years, Rusty Malik, were out at the future site. And with hardhats and shovels in hand, we finally broke ground. We weren’t the first to break ground. Let it be known that Darren Robert, the longest elected member of the BOE, 20 years, a graduate of Wheeler, optimistically came to town hall the night of the referendum with a shovel in hand and after the vote was announced, he went directly to the site and was the well-deserved first to break ground.
With all of that said, now the real work begins and it’s not “the move” that will take place in March. The current BOE has been doing some of the most important work over the last year. They have been working with a consultant and developing “Board Goals.” In addition, for the first time ever, the BOE and the district will be developing a 3- to 5-year Strategic Plan. A Strategic Plan Design Team is in place and a steering committee will be formed shortly. They will be looking for family and resident involvement to develop a strategic plan that will be the blueprint of an incredible time for the town. With the building project underway, the school district wants to be the center piece of education in Connecticut.
Peter Nero is the superintendent of schools in North Stonington.