First Selectman Pat Llodra and Interim School Superintendent John Reed sat for a video interview September 24 to respond to questions and to help residents understand the implications of the upcoming October 5 referendum. On that Saturday, between 6 am and 8 pm, voters will be asked to accept or reject a gift of up to $50 million to remediate and demolish the existing Sandy Hook building, and to build a new, state-of-the-art school facility, roughly on the same site.
The officials sat down with The Bee shortly after the first of several public information sessions and extended office hours for residents who want to come in and discuss concerns or ask questions about the impending project. Additional sesions with each public official, as well as meetings with both, will continue next week.
Mrs Llodra said five people came to the first session. One of the questions asked was whether the school location could be changed by defeating the referendum.
“The answer to that is no,” she responded
The first selectman said a task force made up of members of the Boards of Selectmen, Education, and Finance and the Legislative Council have already determined the best location for the new school is on the approximate site of the old school.
Dr Reed said another visitor noticed a quote in the media characterizing the state’s contribution as “a gift,” thinking the funds were coming from a grant that would require future repayment.
“As far as the $50 million [is concerned], it comes without strings, it does not have to be repaid, it has no impact on the tax rate,” he said. “It is an attempt on the part of the state to make Newtown whole. That means we had seven schools when we started the school year last year, and I think it’s the state’s judgment that we have seven schools now.”
Dr Reed characterized the offer as a “win-win situation for Newtown.”
“It gives us the best of both worlds. If we have an enrollment upswing — and enrollments are cyclical, we’re in a downward trend now — but if we need the space for the kids, we have what we had a year ago,” he said.
On the other hand, if at some point in the future Newtown is “blessed with some space that is not needed,” Dr Reed said school officials can turn to the town in consideration of the many capital projects on the drawing board, and offer the space to repurpose for something like a senior center or police headquarters, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Mrs Llodra addressed questions about why the town decided to build a new school versus renovating the existing building.
“There was a full analysis of the cost to renovate,” she said. “It is a 57-year-old building now. The cost to bring it up to code, to replace it with materials and designs appropriate for today’s education, and that meet the specifications of school buildings today cost almost as much as building new.
“So it would be an unwise use of money to try to use a 57-year-old structure and upgrade it to today’s standard,” she said. “And it did not achieve the support of the state as an option.”
The first selectman reiterated that the grant or gift is fully supported, so there is no direct impact to town taxpayers.
Mrs Llodra said if the referendum is unsuccessful, “I believe we have no school project.”
“In fact, the message back to the legislature and the governor’s office and OPM [Office of Policy and Management] is ‘no thank you, we don’t want that grant — we don’t want that generosity of $50 million,” she added.
Mrs Llodra said a failed referendum will also mean having to find a way to fit 400 Sandy Hook students into six remaining school buildings in town once they depart the Monroe/Chalk Hill facility in 2015.
Dr Reed said he does not expect to be acting superintendent when the time comes to transition Sandy Hook students back to Newtown, but if he was a newly hired superintendent, he would have to look at redistricting as well as restructuring class levels to most efficiently fit into the remaining buildings. He also would expect to have to add temporary classroom space to accommodate all the returning students.
“I think it’s important that we keep them together, not send them the message: welcome back to Newtown, we’re going to try and find parts of other schools to, in essence, help you fit into,” Dr Reed said.
Mrs Llodra noted that if the school is not funded through the present state grant offer, the community would eventually have to fully support the cost of a new elementary school if population swings bring a renewed influx of families to town. She said other capital pressures like a senior center and Hook & Ladder headquarters will put even more of a burden on the local tax base.
“As much as we can plan ahead and prepare for those costs by getting the school restored to our assets, I think it demonstrates really good and solid long-term planning and awareness,” Mrs Llodra said. “We also have an obligation to the taxpayers of the future, not to position them so they have to bear all these capital costs.”