US Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty announced in a conference call Thursday, May 16, that next week they will introduce a bill into the Senate and House of Representatives to amend the School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) fund, allowing it to provide funding to assist in reconstruction of school buildings.
Currently, there is no federal funding available for the building of new schools. Project SERV traditionally funds “short-term and long-term education-related services for local educational agencies (LEAs) and institutions of higher education (IHEs) to help them recover from a violent or traumatic event in which the learning environment has been disrupted,” according to the US Department of Education website, ed.gov.
“Since December 14, the community of Newtown has rallied together,” Senator Murphy said, to rebuild the community. The decision by the Sandy Hook School Task Force May 10, to recommend building a new school on the site of the existing Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six staff members died, makes it clear that staff and students “can’t go back” to the building, said Sen. Murphy.
“Sandy Hook deserves a state-of-the-art, new school,” he said, but the problem of how to pay for a building, estimated at this time to cost between $42 and $47 million dollars, is the problem.
The State of Connecticut has promised to pick up a large portion of that tab, but a tragedy such as occurred at Sandy Hook School “mandates that the federal government makes an exception in this case,” Senator Murphy said.
The purpose of the bill, he further explained, is so that SERV can be authorized in limited instances of mass human tragedy to also provide capitol funding to assist in building costs.
Sen. Murphy added that he does not want to oversell the ability to pass this legislation, a sentiment that was shared by Sen. Blumenthal and Congresswoman Esty.
The cost of building a new Sandy Hook School will be largely borne by the state and local governments, said Senator Murphy, “But we don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” so far as making funds available to assist with the rebuilding of the school.
“There are a lot of senators who turned their backs on Newtown,” he said, referring to the gun legislation that failed last month. “This is a second chance [for them] to step up to the plate and help Newtown,” Sen. Murphy said, adding that he hopes that senators who did the wrong thing on voting against the gun bill will do the right thing with this bill.
“[This bill] enables our colleagues to put their money where their mouths have been,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “This bill gives [senators] an opportunity to make a down payment on their obligation to respond to the Sandy Hook horror.”
By modifying SERV, the bill could help fund a new school at Sandy Hook, “so countless students and staff can avoid the constant reminder… of unimaginable grief and horror of that day,” Senator Blumenthal said.
The “very modest change or exception” is very much in the spirit of the law, he said.
“The federal government should be proud to be a partner in this rebuilding effort,” said the senator. It is appropriate, he said, for the federal government to support this rebuilding project, and he believes it is a bill “our colleagues should embrace.”
Congresswoman Esty thanked Senators Murphy and Blumenthal for leading on introducing the bill. SERV exists to help provide federal assistance, she said.
“That help should also extend to replacing the building where the massacre occurred,” said Ms Esty. While conceding that the bill could be a long shot, Ms Esty said , “I hope we can persuade our colleagues. The tragic event at Sandy Hook School, she said, is a national tragedy.
Sen. Murphy said that the bill will be introduced as stand alone legislation, but that there is no certainty as to the timing of how long the process would take. Passing a bill can normally take years, he said, while noting that Newtown does not have that amount of time.
Even if the federal government cannot provide funding at the outset of the building project in Sandy Hook, funding made available at a later date could provide for reimbursement to the town. Federal money would fill the gaps not covered by the state’s commitment of providing half the cost to the town, he said, and allow the federal government to “be participants in Newtown’s healing.”
Sen. Blumenthal agreed with Sen. Murphy that federal funding should be granted to Newtown, but said that he believed that the federal share should be significant, and provided in a timely manner.
“Realistically, it will be a year or more before bills start coming due,” Sen. Blumenthal said, giving the Senate and House time to pass the bill.
The state and community of Newtown are moving very quickly, Ms Esty pointed out, and said she would be working to get substantial support.
When asked whether federal money had been used for any previous school tragedies, both Sen Murphy and Blumenthal said that the amended bill allowing federal money to be used for new school construction would be the first time that those costs were authorized.
Sen. Blumenthal added that SERV grants were used in recovery at Aurora.
“The bill is unprecedented. What happened in Sandy Hook is unprecedented,” Sen. Murphy said.