Public hearing Monday on proposed $385 million Norwich school construction project

Jul. 31—NORWICH — The City Council will hold a public hearing Monday on a proposed $385 million school construction project that would build four new elementary schools, renovate one middle school and move both central offices and adult education into one of the vacated school buildings.

But at the same time, three council members will introduce a $255 million alternative plan that would place priority on building the four new elementary schools. A proposed $99 million complete renovation of the Teachers' Memorial Global Studies Middle School and a $25 million renovation of the Samuel Huntington School for adult education and central offices would be delayed for two years.

Monday's 7:30 p.m. City Council meeting will be held at the Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School auditorium, 25 Mahan Drive, because the City Hall elevator is out of order. The public hearing on three ordinances, including the $385 million school plan, will be held at the start of the meeting.

A public hearing on the proposed alternative plan, sponsored by Mayor Peter Nystrom, Council President Pro Tempore Joseph DeLucia and Alderwoman Stacy Gould, would be held Monday, Aug. 15.

The full, $385 million plan to be considered Monday, endorsed by the School Building Committee, calls for building new schools on the grounds of the John B. Stanton, Uncas and John Moriarty elementary schools and one at the site of the former Greeneville School and other contiguous land owned by the city.

Once the new schools are completed, students would move in, and the old buildings would be demolished. Then sports fields and playgrounds displaced by the construction project would be built where the old buildings stood. Huntington, Veterans' Memorial, Wequonnoc and Mahan elementary schools would be closed, though Wequonnoc could become a virtual learning center.

Teachers' Memorial would undergo a complete, $99 million renovation in the costliest portion of the overall project, and Huntington School would become the adult education and central office building, with additional use as a community recreation center.

Nystrom said the $385 million price tag for the entire school construction project is "a big ask" of city voters at a time when inflation is in full swing and anticipated high winter fuel costs will be on the horizon by the Nov. 8 election.

He said he would rather prioritize the elementary school projects, building all four schools at once, rather than the phased plan being considered. Nystrom pledged that the city would bring back the Teachers' Memorial project and the Huntington School renovations for central office and adult ed in two years.

Nystrom said he was concerned that if the school projects referendum fails in fall, the city would face spending millions of dollars on necessary repairs on school buildings that ultimately must be closed and discontinued.

Mark Bettencourt, chairman of the School Building Committee and former council president pro tempore, conceded that funding decisions for new schools is up to the City Council. But he said putting off part of the project means the city's middle school students at Teachers' Memorial would be left behind for years longer. Kelly Middle School was renovated several years ago.

"I don't think it's the way to go, because you run the risk of having an inferior middle school compared to the rest of the district," Bettencourt said. "But I think it's something we have to consider."

School Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said in an email comment on the alternative plan that there's no doubt that the entire project is needed, "for the health, safety and academic success of the students in our city."

She said it is up to the City Council to decide how to proceed with the plan.

"I believe they will map out a plan that the community will be able to support," Stringfellow said in the email.

c.bessette@theday.com