A unanimous town meeting vote that approved the appropriation of $750,000 in funds from the state for planning and design work for a new Sandy Hook elementary school was over in 11 minutes.
A full parking lot and line out the door at a crowded Newtown Municipal Center Wednesday found attendees packing the building’s Council Chamber, where the meeting took place. Many residents stood, while others remained in the hallway unable to find a seat or even standing room inside.
After calling the meeting to order, First Selectman and moderator Pat Llodra asked for a motion. Resident Christine Wilford moved to appropriate the sum, seconded by Kathy (Fetchick) Hamilton.
Ms Llodra then opened the floor to discussion, anticipating that many in the crowd had come to speak on the Sandy Hook School project. As she indicated a central table and microphone, no one moved from their seats. Mrs Llodra looked out at the group of more than 154 people in the room, according to Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia’s count. No one spoke as she waited through several seconds of silence.
“Is there any discussion?” she asked. More silence was her answer.
“Lovely,” she said, eliciting laughter from the room of laughter. “Then I will speak.”
She quickly outlined the need for $750,000 to begin preliminary work toward new school construction. The money, part of a larger sum coming to the town from the state, is for design preparation to include surveys, wetlands mapping, oil tank removal, and more.
“It’s for preparation for a bigger appropriation,” Mrs Llodra said. The first selectman hopes to receive the larger sum of $50 million via the state as soon as October. She thanked those gathered for their support.
George Ferguson, also a Legislative Council member seated in the audience, called for a vote. The room filled with a resounding “Aye.” No one was opposed. Attendees burst into applause.
Despite the crush of residents who had gathered Wednesday evening, the meeting concluded in less than 11 minutes.
Resident Jason Jaeger had come out that evening “to be sure” the resolution passed and for the project “to be on the right track,” he said. He was also open to hearing of any hurdles, he said.
“It’s important to keep an open mind to both sides. It would be worth it to hear, so I wanted to hear if others did not support [the new school project].” Instead, he said, he was “pleasantly surprised.”
Resident Chuck Taylor said he came for the same reasons, and stressed, “We need to move forward. We need to start healing.”
Also among those gathered was Legislative Council member Mary Ann Jacob, who said, “This is a great message, and nice to see.”
Not everyone at the municipal center was happy with the situation Wednesday.
In the hallway as the brief meeting took place, Robin Fitzgerald said, “We couldn’t get in.” She and her husband Kevin Fitzgerald agreed that the process for a new school is being expedited, but “has not taken into consideration that some families need more time,” she said. She is also concerned that the action will contribute to a “school swap,” and the town will prepare in the future to take over Reed Intermediate School as enrollment numbers drop.
Mr Fitzgerald said the town needed to have a larger venue for the town meeting.
Was the public disenfranchised, they wondered. Mr Fitzgerald and his wife both said they were disappointed.
“I hope a majority of Sandy Hook families wanted this; it happened too fast,” Ms Fitzgerald said. Noting that he had reservations, Mr Fitzgerald said, “I wanted to talk, but did not have the opportunity.”
Introducing herself as a Sandy Hook parent, Stephanie Burns, who stood speaking to others gathered in the hall after the vote, said, “I was in support.”
Mrs Llodra said that although the meeting saw no comment from the public, “there has been a lot of discussion.” She has answered recent inquiries, she said, and explain that the $750,000 was necessary at this time “if the goal is to bring students back as soon as possible.”
Sandy Hook School students since 12/14 have resumed class in Monroe at the former Chalk Hill Middle School. A recent panel decision in Newtown moved to rebuild a new Sandy Hook School at the old school site off Riverside Road near Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company’s main station.
The state has been sensitive to the fact that Newtown officials did not want to see delays, she said.
According to a release from First Selectman Pat Llodra’s office this week, the $750,000 grant is part of a $50 million state funding package for the Sandy Hook School building project.
The authorization for the first $750,000 of the total grant would recognize a separate action of the state to provide more immediate resources so Newtown may proceed with design and engineering preparatory work.
In prior comments to The Newtown Bee, Mrs Llodra had said that many other town meetings authorizing significantly greater appropriations have been attended by very few residents.
The $750,000 is from the state, and will not carry any localized tax impact to residents, she said.
Authorization to accept the balance of $50 million to complete a new Sandy Hook School will be done through a townwide referendum. Mrs Llodra hopes to set that vote “sooner than later,” because the money to complete demolition of the original structure will be drawn from the balance of the state grant.
Mrs Llodra said that if the current timeline plays out, the old school structure will be demolished in late October or early November. The first selectman said she also wants to assure the community that they have a voice in the process as things move toward demolition, site work, and new construction.
If the town meeting had turned down the phase one grant, all planning would stop until the referendum.
She did not expect the appropriation to fail at the town meeting Wednesday, or at referendum, she had said.