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By MATTHEW STURDEVANT, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
11:11 PM EDT, May 3, 2013
Determining the future site of a new Sandy Hook Elementary School will take at least another week, and possibly longer, members of a 28-member task force said Friday night after being briefed on the trauma suffered by the school's staff.
The briefing, done in an executive session closed to the public, appeared to have a notable effect on the task force members, who have been meeting to decide the future of the school where 20 children and six women were gunned down Dec. 14.
What has until now been a mostly technical discussion about traffic patterns, grading, wetlands and utilities took on a more emotional tone Friday, based on comments made during the public portion of the meeting.
The task force did talk about logistical matters, such as whether declining enrollment in the Newtown school system might undermine plans to build a new school. And it talked about the possibility of building a school on the Fairfield Hills campus, a former mental health facility that is now home to Newtown's municipal center.
But the task force members also talked about the traumatic experience that Sandy Hook teachers might face if, as one option would have it, they returned to a substantially renovated school at the site of the Dec. 14 massacre.
"For me, that is always going to be the site where 26 people were murdered," said Laura Roche, a school board member on the task force.
Roche said that anything built at the existing school site "is going to be a reminder of what happened."
Still, some members were aware that more discussion could mean a delay in returning students to their school. Sandy Hook students are attending Chalk Hill Middle School, which was vacant and unused in neighboring Monroe.
"The clock is ticking," task force member George Ferguson said, "and if we miss it, we have to wait another year. ... I am at a point where I am very much conflicted."
The task force includes selectmen and members of the school board, finance board and legislative council. It has been meeting on Friday nights to discuss possible sites where a new Sandy Hook Elementary could be built. It is scheduled to meet again on May 10.
The heart of the issue is whether to build on the original site, or whether the land should become a permanent memorial.
There is a precedent for renovating a school where a mass shooting has occurred: Columbine High School in Littletown, Colo., was renovated after a shooting there on April 20, 1999, in which 15 people were killed.
The task force surveyed 40 possible locations in town, sorting through factors such as traffic patterns, the grade of the land, whether wetlands were present, and if sewer pipes and other utilities were nearby.
The possible sites were narrowed to five, and then to two: 12 Riverside Road, the current location of the school, and 28 Riverside Road, known as SAC Field.
Yet discussion Friday still focused at times on other options.
The possibility of transforming Reed Intermediate School was debated, with some saying it was too large for elementary children. Others said it could be renovated.
"What about Reed is not suitable?" task force member and Sandy Hook librarian Mary Ann Jacob asked.
The task force is considering three options for the existing school site, including a renovation and two different ways to rebuild.
Renovating the school is estimated to cost $47.5 million. 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, detailing the extensive work that has gone into selecting possible sites.
The more expensive rebuilding option involves an entry on Crestwood Drive and an exit on Dickinson Drive, while the less expensive option would be an entry and exit on Crestwood Drive. Building a new school at SAC Field is estimated to cost $59.74 million.
Town planning officials and professionals from The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation have led the site selection process.
The decision whether to renovate Sandy Hook Elementary School, or to build a new school on the same site, stirs strong feelings among residents.
Early in the process, at a town meeting months ago at Newtown High School, several parents of students said they would never have their children walk back into the school where a gunman killed 26. Some believe that the school should be demolished and the site become a memorial.
Others believe that the Sandy Hook school should remain.
People have offered various reasons for keeping the school: to limit renovation costs, to demonstrate that a gunman can't terrorize a community out of a building, or to hold onto the building that is an alma mater for many generations.
The process is far from over, and voters will eventually get their say. The town is required to hold a referendum to approve the appropriation of funds, even if the entire cost is covered by state and federal money.
Additionally, a technical advisory committee will work on developing a design for the building and will work with state and local officials on permits, schedules and protocols for the design criteria. A legal team is working on matters related to building the new school.
It is too early to say when construction might start or when children could be in the new school. Since Dec. 14, the existing school has been shuttered and fenced off.
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant