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Groton schools issue clouded by condition of three buildings

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published 07/20/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 07/19/2013 11:49 PM
Elementary schools in poor shape, could affect middle school plans

Groton - Any plan to build a middle school in Groton would have to take into account its elementary schools, because three of the seven are in poor condition and could end up closed rather than fixed.

The fundamental question is whether Groton wants one middle school or two, whether it should contain grades seven and eight or grades six, seven and eight, and what should happen to the remaining schools, said Wes Greenleaf, former school facilities director and a member of the task force looking at future construction.

Three of the elementary schools are in such bad shape that in 2010 an architectural firm ranked them as "poor" in five or more areas, including "building code compliance."

Two schools have needed concrete beams reinforced to buy time, one has few escape windows firefighters can fit through and another is using portable classrooms built more than 40 years ago.

Greenleaf said he'd support building a single middle school, turning the existing middle schools into elementary schools, and closing Claude Chester, S.B. Butler and Pleasant Valley elementary schools. The fewer schools Groton has, the less expensive it will be for taxpayers, he said.

Greenleaf said the three schools could be repaired, but at a high cost. "It's not that they're unsafe to be in," he said. "It's that their time has passed."

The school board will meet Monday to decide whether it wants to build one middle school or two and what grades middle and elementary schools should hold. The School Facilities Initiative Task Force will then meet Thursday to talk about specifics.

In June 2010, a report by McKissick Associates Architects evaluated Groton's schools in 13 areas, including their structure and code compliance. The report compared the conditions of the district's 11 schools at the time - including Fitch Middle School, which is now closed - and ranked them. Five of the six lowest-ranked buildings were elementary schools.

Claude Chester, the lowest ranked in terms of condition, received a "1" - or "poor" - rating in the areas of educational support, food service, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, building code compliance, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and fire protection. It received a "2" - or "fair" - in all other areas.

S.B. Butler, ranked 10th, and Pleasant Valley, ranked ninth, received a "poor" rating in the areas of educational support, food service, ADA compliance, building code compliance and fire protection.

Five of Groton's seven elementary schools were rated "poor" for fire protection.

Greenleaf said Claude Chester and Pleasant Valley are equipped with "rescue windows," meaning those large enough for firefighters to climb in, but S.B. Butler has only a few. The schools were built before sprinklers were required and fire alarms were mandated in each space.

Poquonnock Bridge Fire Marshal Adam Wojtcuk, who covers the district that includes Claude Chester, said escape windows are necessary at that school because hurricane-proof windows installed several years ago are virtually unbreakable. "The hurricane windows are next to impossible to get through, even for us," he said. "They would require a saw."

The schools also have structural problems. At Claude Chester, concrete beams holding up the gymnasium floor had to be reinforced two years ago. At S.B. Butler, beams under the front classroom wing were reinforced 18 years ago. Both schools also contain "non-friable" asbestos - asbestos that is not airborne - in the floor tile.

Elsewhere, Pleasant Valley Elementary has five portables built in 1971 that have been moved twice, Greenleaf said.

The next phase

An earlier study of the school district in 2009 and two "vision" reports filed in the last year may also factor into the debate about future school building.

Groton had planned to deal with its school construction in phases. Phase I led to the construction of Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School, Northeast Academy and a major addition and renovation of Fitch High School. Several older schools, including Colonel Ledyard, Groton Heights, Eastern Point and Noank elementary schools closed in 2007 as part of Phase I.

Phase II of the plan would have consolidated three middle schools into one, renovated others and opened new early-childhood centers. But voters defeated it by a wide margin in May 2011. The school board then voted to close Fitch Middle School to save money.

School Board member Rita Volkmann, who serves on the task force as a board representative, told her colleagues this week that the task force toured schools as part of its research. "I think after seeing the middle schools, they felt like things looked not so bad there, compared to some of our three very needy elementaries," she said.

Board member Kim Shephardson Watson, who also serves on the task force, said the group needs some basic direction as to what the board wants. Volkmann said the committee doesn't want to craft a plan the school board then won't support.

School Facilities Director William Robarge told the board this week that if Groton built one or two middle schools, it could relocate elementary students into Cutler Middle School and West Side Middle School.

In addition to the study by McKissick Associates Architects, the school board is expected to review the 2009 Master Plan Phase II draft report presentation by JCJ Architecture and reports by the school "vision committees" released in May and December 2011.

One former plan outlined in 2010 would have kept these schools open: Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School, Charles Barnum Elementary School, Mary Morrisson Elementary School and Northeast Academy. The plan would have closed Claude Chester, Pleasant Valley and Fitch Middle School.

The rebuilding plan would have demolished S.B. Butler and built a new pre-kindergarten to first-grade school, partially renovated West Side Middle School, turned it into an early childhood center and built one new middle school.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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IF YOU GO

The Groton Board of Education will meet at 7 p.m. Monday in the school administration building to discuss future building construction. The School Facilities Initiative Task Force will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Town Hall Annex.

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