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)

But town planners said the existing Sandy Hook school doesn't comply with current building codes, complicating renovation plans. The school would have to be stripped to a steel skeleton if it were renovated to comply with modern standards, they said.

"It's not a choice to go with those codes. You must go with those codes," said George Benson, the town's director of planning and land use.

The option of using the athletic club field, SAC field, was discussed. First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra mentioned that the entity that owns the field at 28 Riverside Road no longer exists and hasn't haven't paid taxes. Building a new school at SAC Field is estimated to cost $59.74 million.

"We could start foreclosure proceedings tomorrow," Selectman James Gaston said.

In the end, though, the committee decided that the legal steps needed to build at SAC field would be too time-consuming.

Rich Harwood, the moderator of the 28-member task force, had said Thursday that, after four earlier meetings, the group's goal Friday was to make a decision.

The last time the committee met, many members emerged from a private session visibly shaken by the harrowing stories they heard from Sandy Hook teachers about their experiences on Dec. 14 and afterward.

At that point, members questioned whether Sandy Hook employees — or anyone — could be expected to return to the site where 26 people were murdered.

Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation in Bethesda, Md., said it's not uncommon for community leaders to take pause when they near such an emotionally charged decision.

"The closer you get to a decision and the more the emotional content of the discussion becomes clearer, it's not uncommon for people to say, 'I know we said we weren't going to consider these, but they're nagging on us and it's worth taking one last look just to be really vigilant about what we're doing here,'" Harwood said.

Harwood has more than two decades of experience helping communities after a difficult challenge. For example, he worked with Flint, Mich., after tens of thousands of jobs at automobile plants were moved out of the area.

"From my perspective, as someone who does this all the time, that's not unusual or uncommon," Harwood said of the apparent second thoughts the task force members were having last week.

In previous meetings, the committee was led by town planners and Harwood through a selection process to decide potential sites for the school.

The existing school has been shuttered and fenced off since the shootings.

Newtown assembled the 28-member committee, consisting of its selectmen, school board, legislative council and finance board, to determine whether to renovate the existing school or rebuild it in a different location.

Discussion at the first several meetings was focused around logistical details about the potential sites: access to sewer pipes and other infrastructure, wetlands, zoning, traffic.

Residents generally are divided into three groups over the future of the Sandy Hook school, Selectman James Gaston Sr. has said.

One group wants to renovate the existing school. Another group wants a completely new school on the existing site. A third group wants a school at a different site, and there are many opinions about where that should be.

A few residents have brought up declining enrollment in Newtown schools and the possibility of redistricting the town and its four elementary schools.

Aimee Tabor, a Sandy Hook mother whose second-grader was in a classroom close to the shootings, prefers the less expensive renovation of the existing school. She viewed it as a more prudent use of taxpayer money than spending nearly $60 million.

She made her feelings known May 3, when she left the meeting in disgust.

"I'm sorry, but you knew there were people this wasn't going to work for. You knew that. What changed?" Tabor said. "With any trauma, there are always going to be people that, no matter what you do, they will not be satisfied.

"And it's not that we're apathetic. It's not that we don't care. I'm waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning with screams in the middle of the night. Believe me, I get it. But they're in a new school right now. And they're having trouble right now. The walls are not what haunt them."