FAIRFIELD — The long-awaited renovation at Mill Hill Elementary School has finally started after more than $1.2 million of additional money was approved and months of sometimes contentious debates.

The construction, which is projected to cost more than $23 million, aims to renovate and expand the school. It is expected to be completed in November 2021.

Town and school officials gathered Friday for a groundbreaking ceremony to officially kick off the next phase of the project, though work is already underway.

“This was really to get the kids involved and to get everyone else alerted that we are indeed breaking ground,” Tom Quinn, chair of the Mill Hill Building Committee, said last Thursday. “We already have construction vehicles out there. If you go by, you’ll see the amount of dirt that we’ve already moved.”

Quinn, who has chaired two other school building committees, said construction on the project began about seven weeks ago, noting crews have been moving earth, making things level and clearing trees. He said workers will start putting up cement, rebar and steel over the next three weeks.

“(The groundbreaking event) is really the harbinger of more to come,” Quinn said. “As a committee, we’ve been working on this about 15 months, so this has been a long time coming for us.”

A topic of some contention, the committee was engaged in a lengthy debate over what size to make the school since July of 2018. The Board of Selectmen charged them with putting together proposals for 304, 441 and 504 capacity models, leading to a long research process and heated town meetings.

In June of 2019, the Representative Town Meeting approved a the model that increased the school’s total capacity from 378 up to 441 and allocated $22 million for construction. In a debate falling largely along party lines, RTM members disputed the relative merits of the two higher options.

Many Democrats advocated for a 504-capacity school that could accommodate a growing student body and address racial imbalance issues at McKinley School, while some Republicans argued neither enrollment projections nor a redistricting plan supported these claims.

The Democratic-majority RTM ultimately voted unanimously to approve the funding for the 441-capacity model, with many members reluctant but wary of looming deadlines. The decision will ultimately mean the total amount of classrooms increases from 18 to 21, with 21 students per class.

In tandem with expanding the school, renovations will take place to update the school’s facilities to current health, welfare, safety and fire codes, as well as install and improve school security systems. Plans also include installing a sprinkler system and HVAC fresh air and air conditioning, replacing hallway lighting and lockers and updating bathrooms.

Additionally, 20 parking spaces will be added to the 96-space lot, addressing parking and traffic issues.

Earlier this year, the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance approved about $1.27 million more for the project. At the time, Quinn said the increase was needed due to external work and work inside the school.

The site work outside included increasing the storm water retention capacity and bolstering the soil so the buildings do not sink. It is estimated to cost $530,000.

The work inside the school, in part, consisted of putting in an HVAC system, installing acoustical dampening equipment and electrical work. Quinn said that has been estimated to cost $745,000.

While the BOF approved the increase, it took umbrage with the building committee adding a classroom to renovation plans and then removing it and claiming it as a savings. The finance board added a stipulation that the money could only be spent on aspects of the renovation that were in the approved designs.

Last Thursday, Quinn said the committee was hopeful the money allotted to the project will cover all costs associated with it.

“But you never know, once you open up different walls or dig a hole, what you’re going to find,” Quinn said, noting it comes with the territory of working on buildings that are 50-plus years old.

Joshua.LaBella@hearstmediact.com