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School Panel Facing High Emotions And A Delay On SHS Site Decision

In the final minutes of a marathon five hour meeting May 3 that started with some raw and emotional input from Sandy Hook School staff, a Newtowner who played a key role on 12/14 sat down before a school building task force and described what he was witnessing.

Gene Rosen, who found six students from the school in his neighboring driveway that fateful December morning and sheltered them until parents and police arrived, took a few moments to dial down his own emotions before he spoke.

“I heard the agony of this process,” he said, his voice hitching.

Mr Rosen lavished praise on the Sandy Hook School building panel members, technical team advisors, mental health consultants and a facilitator who moved deftly through numerous agenda items during that protracted session which yielded no final decision on the school’s future.

Prior to the 7 pm meeting, which began with teachers reportedly expressing grief and frustration during a closed-door session, the task force of 28 local elected officials had been set to possibly vote on a recommendation to the local school board.

But early on the public session, facilitator Richard Harwood stated that he expected to continue discussions to next Friday. Several hours later it was more unclear whether officials would be able to reach a consensus by them.

Over the course of three previous meetings, the panel had narrowed a list of choices to renovating Sandy Hook Elementary School, tearing it down and constructing a new building at the same site, or building a new school on nearby property.

SHS Staff Input

During public discussion, it was revealed that teachers told task force members they felt left out of the decision-making process about new or rebuilding plans, a point refuted privately by several in attendance Friday. Other staffers said it would be too traumatic to ever work on the property, again according to officials who described the earlier closed session.

Shortly after the public was allowed into the Municipal Center council chambers, panel members asked to revisit a few sites for a new school that previously had been ruled out, which upset some of the nearly 90 people who packed the room.

Some task force members also said they were unsure where the process was heading.

“I’m stuck,” admitted Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze.  He observed that the panel “seemed conflicted” in regard to its guiding principles, and questioned how the group should weigh each point against another.

Mr Harwood responded that early on, the panel was warned that the principles they established could end up “rubbing against each other,” making individual and group decision making difficult.

First Selectman Pat Llodra pointed out that time was a concern. She said officials must present a funding plan to state lawmakers in time for special legislation to be crafted and reviewed before the 2012-13 session ends next month.

Earlier, Mrs Llodra said she has been in touch with state leaders to ensure the town would get priority placement on a Department of Education funding list after the closing deadline for new projects. That would require passing special legislation.

“But we must have a number attached to the project,” she said, adding that federal officials in the mix were working with state officials on Newtown’s behalf.

Fairfield Hills Revisited

One of the curveballs tossed out by several panel members Friday evening involved requests to re-examine siting a new school near the Cochran House location at Fairfield Hills. Councilman Dan Amaral also asked about the high meadow, also at Fairfield Hills, a previous site that was considered for a regional National Guard motor pool maintenance facility

Opposition to the Mile Hill South location was varied. Participants said difficulties managing traffic flow, the need to wall or fence off the school perimeter, and relocating the school outside the Sandy Hook district were all key considerations working against the location.

Land Use Director George Benson said the high meadow was both logistically inappropriate for the volume of anticipated school traffic, as well as an area of the campus the public wants to see preserved as recreational open space.

Moving to address the main points to be reviewed, Mr Harwood first asked to focus on a concern of Board of Education member Cody McCubbin about a future binding referendum tied to financing a Sandy Hook School project.

Mrs Llodra said voters would decide on the proposed financial appropriation versus a site or aspects of the building itself. She said if the vote failed, the project would go back through a revision process that could delay any action for six months to a year.

Council Vice-Chair and Sandy Hook School staffer Mary Ann Jacob asked if revisions also have to go back to the state for review and approval. The first selectman replied that they must.

Reed School Option

Discussion then turned to reconsidering a possibility of converting Reed Intermediate School into an elementary school. Finance board Vice Chairman Joe Kearney said he saw a lot of advantages to the Reed option.

He said it would take less time and money to fully repurpose the Reed facility for elementary students; it could be an acceptable option for Sandy Hook staffers who will not return to a school at the site of the 12/14 events; and the Reed facility was already identified as a school to consider closing if student population trends continue to decline.

Mrs Llodra noted that there seemed to be much more interest in a Reed conversion than during earlier meetings. But she said officials would still have to grapple with distributing former Reed fifth graders back among the elementary schools, and find a way to accommodate sixth graders at Newtown Middle School

Finance board member Richard Oparowski said he would not want the town to be in an eventual position where it is building a new Sandy Hook facility, while mothballing another school building because of declining enrollment.

Selectman James Gaston said historically, any enrollment predictions the town considers beyond a five-year mark are in the “land of speculation.”

Mr Kearney then asked how fast the town might be able to obtain updated projections. Mrs Llodra replied that if there was sufficient interest, the school board should look into it.

School board member John Vouros then pleaded with the panel to not let the process drag on.

“We don’t have the mental capacity to go on for months and months,” he said.

Parents, Residents Speak

Nearly three hours later, after hearing from two mental health workers consulting with the town and reviewing preferred site options with the technical team, a number of other residents expressed mixed opinions on what should be done with the school.

Brian Engel, whose 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, was killed on 12/14, told the task force that he and his wife want the village of Sandy Hook to have an elementary school but at a different location. He said he didn’t want Olivia’s younger brother to ever have to walk into the building where the massacre took place.

‘‘We do want him to go to Sandy Hook School, but at an alternate location — not where his sister died,’’ Mr Engel said after the meeting.

‘‘I'm very confused,’’ said Newtown resident Janet Ziperstein, who has two children who attended Sandy Hook. ‘‘It’s very difficult to watch this process.’’

A few parents said Friday night they didn’t want to send their children to Monroe’s converted Chalk Hill School for much longer.

Other residents favor renovating the existing school. Some want a new school built in Sandy Hook.

Earlier in the meeting, school board Vice Chair Laura Roche said she would not support reopening Sandy Hook School.

‘‘To me, that is always going to be a site where 26 people were murdered,’’ she said.

Associated Press content was used in this report.

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