Ashland School District officially broke ground on the first of a series of school renovations with a ceremony at Ashland Middle School this morning.

"We're excited because this is our first one," said Superintendent Juli Di Chiro, who donned a hard hat for the occasion. "We're so happy to be out of the planning stages and into construction."

Four middle school students dug in with golden shovels for the planned cafeteria and gym expansion. Helman Elementary will follow with an all-school ceremony on Friday, and Walker Elementary the first week of April.

Although the planning commission approved the projects, the district is still waiting for building permits to begin actual construction.

"My biggest concern right now is getting all the building permits and keeping our contractors busy," said Gary DeCock, the project manager with Heery International. The district submitted permit applications for Helman and the middle school in early February, and they expect to receive them any day, he said.

They allowed six to eight weeks for the process, the amount of time recommended by the city.

Groundbreakings in Ashland often occur before the permits are issued, said Adam Hanks, the permit center manager for the city.

"From our standpoint that's not rare at all, nor does that create any problems," he said.

Students who participated in the ceremony said they are excited about the coming changes.

"I think that it's awesome that we get more of a cafeteria area so we can enjoy ourselves more and it's not as crowded," said sixth-grader Alexandra Frol.

Construction on the larger projects will begin later this year, with a groundbreaking at the high school in late April, and at Bellview Elementary on the last day of school in June.

Helman, Walker and the middle school are scheduled for completion this calendar year, and Bellview and the high school should be finished before the start of the 2009-10 school year.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .