A group of Fairfield Woods Middle School students got to don hard hats, grab shovels and join the grownups Friday morning at the groundbreaking ceremony for the school's $24.3 million expansion project.

Among them was sixth-grader Will Mitola, who was excited about the work being done at the school. "We're getting an auditorium," Mitola said, which is important to him because he plays the tuba in the school band.

The project not only will add an auditorium, but 13 classrooms and space to the cafeteria. The first phase under construction is the classroom addition, which building committee Chairman William Sappone said will be completed by September, as will the cafeteria expansion. The auditorium is scheduled to be completed by early next year.

"We're also making sure the school is ADA compliant," Sappone said of the access provisions for people with disabilities. "This summer we'll be going through the whole building."

Right now, he said, the project is on schedule and under budget, based on the bids that were received. "Of course, we don't know what contingencies may arise, but so far, we're where we need to be."

First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, taking part in his last groundbreaking as the town's chief elected official, believes the Fairfield Woods project will be the last major school construction for at least 20 years. "Fairfield Woods makes it the end of the cycle of schools with large building projects," Flatto said. "This is a turning point in town"

He said while there may be some smaller school renovation projects in the $4 to $5 million range, there are unlikely to be any large undertakings. "We've had a spurt, now we're in a period of stability," Flatto said.

When the Fairfield Woods project was first proposed, the Board of Selectmen removed the auditorium from the plans in an effort to cut costs. It was added back, however, by the Board of Finance and approved by the Representative Town Meeting in a near-unanimous vote.

Unlike the town's other two middle schools, Fairfield Woods does not have an auditorium and large-scale programs are staged in the gym.

The school had also been renovated and expanded in the mid-1990s.

The town recently settled with Mark Corcoran, a neighbor of the school, who had filed a lawsuit to overturn the zoning approval for the project. The suit was dropped after Corcoran reached agreement with the town for a $70,000 settlement.