This story has been expanded and updated on May 14.
With united voices, 26 members of the Sandy Hook School Task Force voted on May 10 to recommend to the Board of Education that a new school be built at 12 Riverside Road, where the current Sandy Hook Elementary School now stands.
Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra noted that the two task force members absent at the vote, Richard Oparowski and Will Rodgers, had requested that she share their support for that site, making the vote unanimous.
Calling it “extraordinary” that the group could come together with the level of commitment shown over the course of the five Friday night meetings, Mrs Llodra told fellow task force members, “We’ve done it. You've conducted yourselves honorably.”
Adding that she hoped all were proud of the work done, she noted, “We did the best we could do.”
Her words were met with a standing ovation from residents who had filled the Chamber Councils of Newtown Municipal Center Friday night for the meeting that lasted just over 2½ hours.
Task Force facilitator Richard Harwood, of The Harwood Institute in Bethesda, Md., opened the meeting reminding the group that the evening’s goal was to reach a decision on the site of a future Sandy Hook Elementary School. He clarified that last week’s failure to reach a decision and to seek additional information on other potential sites was not a reversal, but rather a healthy piece of coming to the best decision. Mr Harwood also reminded the group and the many residents gathered to hear the evening’s discussion that it was unlikely all would agree, that not everyone would be happy, and that not every one in the community would be pleased with the final recommendation to the Board of Education.
But, he said, “We can’t move the clock back to before December 14.”
Responding to discussion from the May 3 task force meeting, at which the feasibility of utilizing the Reed Intermediate School (RIS) as an elementary school was raised, Mr Harwood turned the meeting over to acting Superintendent of Newtown Schools John Reed.
It would be difficult to make any decision to repurpose RIS and redistribute the fifth and sixth grade students, based on the information the SHS Task Force has, said Dr Reed. But, he added, he did not believe it would be wise at this time to spend money on a new enrollment projection.
He noted that the state of the American economy and the housing market continually affect school enrollment, and that additionally, there is the unknown short and long-term impact of 12/14 on the town.
If the goal is keeping students in Newtown younger, longer, Dr Reed expressed concerns that research indicates sixth graders having far less in common with seventh graders than might be imagined. If RIS were repurposed, sixth grade students would be possibly be attending school with seventh and eighth graders.
“My opinion: We had seven schools on December 13. Newtown should be made whole,” said Dr Reed.
Task Force member Joseph Kearney requested Dr Reed’s opinion as to whether the incorporation of fifth or sixth grade students into the elementary schools was a good idea.
“There is no way to be confident what the [school] population will be. My answer is ‘No,’” responded Dr Reed.
Task force members raised other concerns on risks involved with repurposing of RIS, including the renovations that would be required to transform the 5/6 school into an elementary school, before agreeing that the RIS site option should not be considered further.
“In hindsight, it was a little blindsided thinking of Fairfield Hills as a school site,” admitted John Mancini, a principal with BL Companies out of Cheshire, as the group readdressed the possibility of putting a new SHS on that property. The Fairfield Hills Cochran House site, off of Mile Hill Road South, is “not a good goal, moneywise and timewise,” said Mr Mancini. Two other sites at Fairfield Hills would also not be positive options, due to excessive volume of traffic between Routes 34 and 25 at peak times, and difficulty in expanding the current traffic allowed by the Department of Transportation to exit onto Wasserman Way.
“When I think about Fairfield Hills as the place it wants to be, it is almost counterproductive to putting a school here,” he said. In light of the new information on traffic issues at Fairfield Hills, the group determined that they would not pursue that option as viable for moving forward in site selection.
Two Remaining Sites
Much discussion surrounded the two remaining sites, one that encompasses the property off of Riverside Road known as the SAC field and private properties adjacent to it, and that of the current Sandy Hook School building, with a new entrance to be located at 12 Riverside Road.
The pressing question raised about the SAC site at the May 3 meeting was whether or not the title to the SAC property was clear.
Mrs Llodra said that she had spoken with town attorney Monte Frank earlier and that it appeared that the title is clear, but that it is in the name of a corporation that no longer exists. “We need to find a person with the authority to act,” she said, in order to negotiate purchase of that land, adding, “I don’t know what that means in terms of time.”
Other potential problems with the SAC site include a house on the SAC site that is currently occupied; that owners at 26 Riverside Road have indicated they are not interested in selling their property to the town; and that Newtown Underwater Search And Rescue has a 25 year lease on property there. “It would be eminent domain,” if the group recommended to move forward with the SAC site, said Mrs Llodra.
Mr Kearney cautioned members who continued to believe the SAC site a viable option not to underestimate the difficulty in undertaking eminent domain.
Mr Mancini said that the SAC site most likely would require regrading of Riverside Road, and that privately owned houses and garages close to the road would possibly be affected by the road work. Wetlands prevent location of a driveway elsewhere along the property, he said.
He also raised the issue that the SAC site, at a higher elevation, would actually overlook the previous school property. It was a situation that Paul Lundquist later noted could be “a terrible, unintended consequence.”
“In earlier conversation, we said we would not be comfortable pursuing [eminent domain],” Mrs Llodra said, and with it not being clear who the trustee of the SAC property is, “It’s a little more complicated.”
The Task Force moved on to discussing the current school site without ruling out the SAC property. Town attorney Monte Frank was expected to attend later in the evening, and it was felt that his input would be important in making a decision.
Mr Mancini and other members of the technical team began the 12 Riverside Road presentation with a video showing travel down Church Hill Road to a new Sandy Hook School entrance, to be located between Apex Glass and the Senior Center, and following a rendition of that driveway to a new building situated on the site.
Mrs Llodra said that the owner of the property where the driveway would be built had approached the town about selling the property.
A minor easement including tree and bush trimming for sight lines would be procured, and roadwork would be less extensive than at the SAC site, said Mr Mancini.
Talk turned to renovation of the current Sandy Hook School building, a possibility raised by many residents and task force members in earlier meetings.
Director of Land Use George Benson said that the technical team had walked through the school, assessing the infrastructure. “Renovation would be extensive,” he said.
At 60 years old, the building is at the end of its life cycle, with only the “bones” of the structure reusable, said Phil Clark, architect with Claris Construction. Renovation would require bringing it up to new code. “We’re compromising the site if we are just saving 10 to 15 percent of a building,” Mr Clark said.
The task force has referred to ten guiding principles (see “What’s Next For SHS?” in the April 12 issue of The Bee) as it considers its recommendation for a future site for the school, and on May 10, they once more reflected on those guidelines.
A visibly moved Laura Roche, a member of the Board of Education and the Sandy Hook School Task Force, shared her visit earlier that day with firefighters at the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company firehouse, where surviving students and parents gathered on 12/14. “I hadn’t been back since that day,” she said. “I was trying to balance teachers who haven’t gone back and firefighters who had to go back; where are the firefighters in the healing process?” Ms Roche said.
What she heard was that while it has been hard for the firefighters, it is getting easier. “It is a community process,” she said. “It is a decision about community; the need to embrace, celebrate, and move on,” said Ms Roche.
James Gaston said he placed the greatest weight on the guiding principles related to the emotional impact on those who feel they cannot return to the current site, in any configuration. “If it’s feasible, do it at SAC field,” he said, a location that would also address returning business to Sandy Hook Center.
“Some guiding principles will be in conflict,” said Keith Alexander. “It is terrible, unwanted, unplanned, and unimaginable… In the end, each must decide which principles mean most,” he said.
Two referendums will be required no matter which site is selected, Mrs Llodra told the group. One would be a land purchase referendum and a second referendum for appropriation for the project. “Our charter requires we go to referendum even if 100 percent of the funding comes from the state,” she said.
Her latest conversations with high level state and some federal legislators is that they are “coming to a better understanding of what it means to make Newtown whole,” Mrs Llodra said, as has been promised. The town is requesting 100 percent of what it would cost to build a new school up to code, she said, approximately $42-$47 million. The legislature needs to know that number before June 6. To her knowledge, said Mrs Llodra, in response to a question posed by Richard Gaines, “there is no consideration for cost of demolishing Sandy Hook School. It’s another layer we have to resolve.”
That statement was clarified further by Turner Construction Company project executive Michael DiNallo, who said that the cost of demolition at Sandy Hook School offsets site work at the SAC site.
Returning to the conversation surrounding the guiding principles, John Vouros recommended that staff and members of the Sandy Hook School community should be invited to walk through the school or to go on that property, as a way to ease into closure and address emotional perceptions.
Considering the emotional perceptions, Board of Education chairman and task force member Debbie Leidlein, said she would then prefer Fairfield Hills. “But, perceptions and emotions are consistently changing in the process. For many years, [Sandy Hook School] was a place for learning, happiness, and growth. I’d like to see it returned to that function in our community,” Ms Leidlein said.
The SAC site returned to the forefront of discussion with the arrival of Mr Frank. While the title is clear, he said, there are significant problems with that site. The corporate structure is unknown; the eminent domain process is time consuming; and there is a problem with foreclosing on the property. “We have to serve someone, somehow. It all takes time,” Mr Frank said. He estimated adding on six months to a year for the project if the SAC site were chosen.
Before taking a vote on site selection, the floor was opened for public comment.
Those speaking urged a decision that returns the Sandy Hook School children to the town as swiftly as possible, while recognizing the sensitivity of all involved, and thanked the task force for the respect and effort put forth in coming to a decision that could not possible please everyone.
“The only place anger is felt,” said Sandy Hook School parent Peter Barresi, “is toward the individual who took all this from us.”
Steven Uhde said he felt that “We can make that site love again.”
Rebuilding on the site of the current Sandy Hook School would allow the school community to have a "transformative feeling" and offer emotional closure, said Chris Smith.
Like many who spoke, Mike Scarpa thanked the task force. “There has been a ton of emotional compromise, respect of feelings, and a lot of hope in building a new school,” he told the 26 members seated at the front of the room. Regarding the upcoming referendums, Mr Scarpa said he hoped that Newtown residents would trust the work the task force has done. “When the referendums come, the world is going to be watching. I hope we show the world our strength and unity,” Mr Scarpa said.
Sensing that the consensus was for the site at 12 Riverside Road, on the property currently occupied by Sandy Hook School, Mr Harwood asked all members in favor of that site to say “Aye.”
There were none opposed.
A palpable sense of relief flooded the room as residents, task force members, and support staff hugged, cried, shook hands, and worked their ways through media and well-wishers. In the wake of the emotional release, Mrs Llodra took time to comment.
She said that she was not surprised that the task force had come to a decision in a timely manner Friday night. “The process worked,” she said.
“It was very challenging. Who’s ever done this before?” she asked.
Mrs Llodra said that she had had great confidence in the members of the Sandy Hook School Task Force, “That they would grapple with this and come to the best decision.” She stressed the value in the decision being unanimous as the process moves forward.
“It's a significant path in this journey,” said Mrs Llodra.
Ms Roche noted that it had been an emotional and exhausting process, but that “At the end of the day, we came to where we need to be.”
Deputy Director of Land Use Rob Sibley, a member of the technical team that put together the options reviewed by the Task Force, and also a Sandy Hook School parent, was excited to see the process move forward.
“This group took an impossible decision and made a ray of hope for the future,” said Mr Sibley.
The recommendation of the Sandy Hook School Task Force now goes to the Board of Education for consideration.