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Task force will take fresh look at 'decaying' Groton schools

By Greg Smith

Publication: The Day

Published January 19. 2013 4:00AM

Groton - It has been nearly two years since voters overwhelmingly rejected a $133 million school upgrade proposal, Phase II of a larger plan to address the school district's aging facilities.

The town's school buildings and infrastructure, meanwhile, continue to age.

A new, 19-member task force established this month will again tackle the need to renovate outdated school buildings, build new ones, or both.

"Some of the buildings in Groton are in terrible shape. It's a long overdue issue," said Permanent School Building Committee Chairman Rick DeMatto.

DeMatto will be a part of the new school facilities initiative task force, a group that includes several teachers, residents and members of the Town Council, Representative Town Meeting, Permanent School Building Committee, Board of Education and Planning Commission.

DeMatto said he was amazed that the town had put off any new construction for so long. He said the Phase II proposal was ambitious, complex and difficult to sell but had a sound educational foundation.

Phase II would have consolidated three middle schools into one new school, renovated others and opened new early-education centers. In the wake of its defeat, the school board voted to close Fitch Middle School last year as a cost-saving measure and consolidate students into two remaining middle schools, Cutler and West Side.

The lack of space has precipitated the need for renovations and portable classrooms at both schools at a cost of more than $1.4 million.

The idea of further consolidating and building one middle school to service the town continues to be talked about as an option, especially considering the up to 80 percent reimbursement rates from the state.

"The priority in my mind is to settle the middle school issue once and for all," DeMatto said. "That's going to be the push."

Part of the reason for the degrading schools is that the town limited spending for maintenance in past years while plans and studies were completed. Phase I of the school upgrade plan eventually led to new construction and the opening of Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School and Northeast Academy along with a major addition and renovation of Fitch High School at a cost of nearly $100 million.

Several of the older elementary schools, the ones most expensive to renovate, were closed: Colonel Ledyard, Groton Heights, Eastern Point and Noank elementary schools all closed in 2007 as part of Phase I.

School board member Robert Peruzzotti, who is not a member of the new task force but was involved in past committees, said this group will have even more on their plate this time around.

Any plans developed will need to address overcrowding and racial-imbalance issues that have plagued the school district in past years. The school is presenting a redistricting plan to the state next month in advance of the next school year in which about 370 students will be moved to different schools to satisfy a state law.

Along with technology, the new group will also have to take into account a newly reinvigorated emphasis on security at the schools. Overall, Peruzzotti said, "they've got to take care of the old schools and find a way to limit costs."

"At these schools - some of them are 60 years old - the infrastructure is fragile and has been taken care of with piecemeal fixes," Peruzzotti said. "Something has to be done for the long run. The buildings are decaying."

The group will be helped along with the facilitation services of Milone & Mac Broom, the same firm hired to draft a redistricting plan. The group has already compiled information on things like population changes and shifts in demographics that will be an asset to the group.

"My expectation is we'll be moving much more rapidly this time around. There's so much information already there," DeMatto said.

Mayor Heather Bond Somers said she expects the group to come out with a list of recommendations in a matter of months rather than years, as was the case with past groups. She said cooperation and communication between the Town Council and Board of Education will be one of the keys to success.

"If we can all stay engaged and move this process forward," she said, "I think it will be better for the entire town."

Overall, Somers said, it's one of the biggest and most costly issues the town will need to confront - and soon.

"It's a combination of things," she said. "We have aging schools that are inefficient to heat and don't meet today's educational needs. And we have a town that is extremely diverse."

g.smith@theday.com

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