Newtown Will Build A New Sandy Hook Elementary School At Existing Site

Lorna Szalay, the manager of the Sandy Hook Elementary School kitchen, cries tears of joy after the task force voted to build a new school at the original location Friday night. (RICHARD MESSINA)

— A new Sandy Hook Elementary School building will be built at the site of the existing school, a task force of town leaders decided Friday night.

The school, at a cost of almost $60 million, will take the place of the old building, where a mass shooting Dec. 14 took the lives of 26 children and educators.

The committee of town leaders, meeting for the fifth time, made its decision through a unanimous voice vote. The group was charged with deciding whether to extensively renovate the existing school, rebuild at the existing site or build a new school elsewhere.

"It's a gut-wrenching decision," Selectman James Gaston Sr. said.

Rob Sibley, the town's deputy planning director, rubbed his eyes after the meeting. He was a first responder to the school with Sandy Hook's fire company. He has twins in kindergarten and a third-grader at the school. His wife happened to be visiting the school as gunfire echoed through the halls.

"It certainly opens the door to a path toward healing that was not there before," Sibley said about the task force decision. "It doesn't detract from the grief we feel on a daily basis."

The next steps will include having the board of education draft education specifications for the new elementary school and figuring out how to pay for it. Funding sources will include substantial contributions from the state and perhaps the federal government. The town must provide a maximum possible price to the legislature by early June for bonding purposes.

Residents will vote on the plans at a referendum. Demolition of the existing school could start as soon as early January 2014, Sibley said.

Sandy Hook Elementary has about 450 students, and the existing school is 69,000 square feet. The new school would be larger.

Construction probably will take about 19 months, and the first-graders of today could finish as Sandy Hook students in spring 2016, Sibley said.

Rebuilding at the existing site could cost either $56.5 million or $56.7 million, depending on site design, according to a 187-page document on the town's website, newtown-ct.gov. The more expensive rebuilding option involves an entry on Crestwood Drive and an exit on Dickinson Drive, while the less expensive option would have an entry and exit on Crestwood Drive.

The option to renovate the existing school was estimated to cost $47.5 million.

Earlier Friday evening, the committee eliminated two recently considered options: moving the Sandy Hook Elementary students into Reed Intermediate School; and building a new elementary school at the Fairfield Hills campus, once the site of a state mental hospital but now the site of the Newtown Municipal Center.

During its deliberations, the committee had narrowed a list of 40 possible sites to five options, and then ostensibly to two: 12 Riverside Road, the current location of the school, and 28 Riverside Road, known as the Sandy Hook Athletic Club Field. The Reed School and Fairfield Hills options were brought up at the last committee meeting May 3.

Before making its decision, the committee opened the floor to public comment.

Laura Roche, a member of the Newtown Board of Education, addressed the audience, apologizing for shaking as she spoke. "This whole process has been daunting and hard," she said.

She said she visited the Sandy Hook volunteer firehouse this week for the first time since Dec. 14. She was in a room at the firehouse when Gov. Dannel Malloy told the families that their loved ones were dead.

"No matter what we do, we're going to hurt someone," Roche said.

Peter Barresi, a Sandy Hook firefighter, said his first-grade son, Wyatt, and others are now in a school that doesn't fit them — Chalk Hill Middle School in Monroe, offered to Newtown following the shootings.

Barresi said the students need to come home to their own school. He said he doesn't like the idea that Adam Lanza, the gunman who massacred the students and educators, would somehow take Sandy Hook Elementary from the town by forcing its demolition. Barresi has been an outspoken supporter of renovating the existing school.