— 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.
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."