Following a week in which they had time to review a thick binder of options for a Sandy Hook Elementary School site, the 28 members of the Sandy Hook School Task Force met for the third time, Friday evening, April 19. The binder was compiled by members of a technical team that had walked the Task Force through its contents one week earlier.
Facilitator Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute out of Bethesda, Md., reminded the group that the goal for the April 19 meeting was to “come up with a narrowed down list to take into the May 3 meeting. To come up with ‘x’ number of sites.” Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra, a member of the SHS Task Force, emphasized Mr Harwood’s admonishment.
In comments on the previous week’s meeting before moving forward, task force member Richard Oparowski, who had not been able to attend that meeting, said that like other residents, he was “dumbfounded” that no basic renovation of the existing SHS building was included in the options. Mr Oparowski said that he was concerned about excessive costs related to extensive renovation or to new building, and a desire to see SHS children quickly returned to the town.
Mr Harwood reminded the members that the site considerations were for a pre-kindergarten through grade 5 school, and to accommodate future growth. Sandy Hook Elementary School is now a kindergarten through grade 4 school.
Discussion evolved to how the group would come to a decision: through consensus or vote.
“We want to maintain the norm we have had,” Mr Harwood said, “but there are places we will want to take a vote.
“In making determination on the site, I believe it should be one determined by vote,” added Mrs Llodra. “We need to empower the Board of Education with authority about that decision. It’s up to us,” she said, “to take a vote.”
Task Force member John Kortze asked if members were legally required to vote, and the response was no.
Residents’ eventual input via voting was also questioned.
Town attorney Monte Frank was asked to clarify. He confirmed Mrs Llodra’s point that no matter what the source of funding, it has to go to referendum.
“It will require at least on question on referendum,” Mr Frank said, and possibly two, depending on the site recommended. He clarified that in an instance where the town must acquire property, it would have to go to referendum. Mr Frank said that multiple funding sources would not mean multiple referendum questions.
“[The process] follows all of the charter processes,” Mrs Llodra added.
In further discussion, Mr Kortze brought up the issue of timing.
“How important is it that we expedite quicker, and who makes that decision? The book seems to funnel toward one option, if time is a factor,” Mr Kortze said.
Mrs Llodra said that decisions should be made in a timely manner, “but should not be driven by time. That should not be our number one criteria.”
“There is no precedent for what we’re doing,” Mrs Llodra emphasized. “We’re trying to design a system broadly representative of our community. It puts us in such an unusual situation to each other. We have to trust the process,” she said, and reiterated her belief that the group must ultimately take a vote.
Mrs Llodra updated the group on meetings held April 15 and 16 with State officials, to accommodate special considerations to fast track any reconstruction or building related to Sandy Hook Elementary School. (See article “Llodra: State Will Accommodate Sandy Hook School Building Schedule” in the April 19 issue of The Newtown Bee, or online at www.newtownbee.com.) Both meetings were very positive, Mrs Llodra said, with officials promising support.
While promises have been made on state and federal levels to “make us whole,” so far as cost are concerned, Mrs Llodra noted that was still not a sure thing. “Ultimately,” she reminded the task force and the approximately two dozen residents in attendance, “it is still a burden shared by all of us who live in the state. We will not be disrespectful of help from the state.”
Task Force member Richard Gaines spent several minutes responding to a question raised at the April 12 meeting as to the size of the site. An ad hoc facility committee had come to the conclusion as to the closing of a school in Newtown that “Here were a number of scenarios, and all led us to say we can’t make a decision.” That committee, now disbanded, recommended a new study of enrollment projections for 2013.
Further discussion moved to the impact of closing Reed Intermediate School, elementary schools taking on fifth grade students, and the difficulties with moving sixth graders back into the Middle School population. How full day kindergarten would affect school size also came into the conversation, prompting member Neil Chaudhary to ask how relevant the discussion was to the night’s task at hand.
“The size of the building is beyond the scope of this group,” Mrs Llodra said.
Group Addresses Tier I And II Options
With no further questions from the April 12 meeting, Mr Harwood moved the Task Force forward into a discussion of the three tiers of options for Sandy Hook School. The technical team had broken down options into Tiers I, II and III, with Tier III options being least desirable. Mr Harwood asked that they focus on whether or not a site deserved to be on the final list, now that they had had the past week to review all sites.
No sites from Tier III options were raised up.
Discussion around Site 7 on Cherry Street, a Tier II option, was extensive. (All site options can be found online at the Town of Newtown website; a hard copy is available for viewing in the Land Use Office at Newtown Municipal Center.) That site is too small to accommodate separation of people and bus operations, explained John Mancini, principal with BL Companies of Cheshire and a member of the technical team.
So far as enlarging the property by acquiring a contiguous piece of land, Director of Land Use George Benson replied to George Ferguson’s question by noting that Newtown Forest Association now owns the piece of land. The slope of the property and reconfiguration of Cherry Street that would be necessary to accommodate buses from a safety standpoint was another reason behind placing the option in Tier II, he said.
Daniel Amaral questioned why site 17, Treadwell Park, was considered Tier II. Mr Mancini pointed out that the buildable area was only where the current use is, with much of the other property wetlands.
Access to site 12, on Homer Clark Lane, off Route 34, was one reason it was a Tier II and not a Tier I option. Mr Ferguson asked if another lot, off Osborne Hill Road, could be acquired to access the site, but Mr Benson replied that site work there would be extensive.
Not elaborating further, Mr Ferguson noted that he had plans to bring up an additional site option, not currently included, to Mr Benson and Deputy Director of Land Use Rob Sibley, this coming week.
Moving on to the five Tier I properties that the technical team deemed most desirable, Mr Harwood suggested that conversation about the current Sandy Hook School site be left until last.
James Gaston raised the question of site 5, Riverside Road being Tier I, if modifying Riverside Road was listed as a difficulty. It also appeared, he said, that it was only a six-acre site, six acres less than what the technical team had said was needed, at minimum.
“That site is actually three parcels,” Mr Mancini replied, and added together is greater than six acres. Two parcels to the west and north of the acreage owned by the non-profit SAC organization are town owned, he said.
Mr Benson said that negotiation would have to take place to acquire the SAC property, which he believed would be easier than negotiating with a private property owner, as in other options. He also said that an additional private homeowner on that site option has indicated a willingness to discuss selling. Mrs Llodra emphasized that there has been no conversation by the town government with private property owners.
Circling back to time concerns, Mr Mancini said that while there will be “hiccups” along the way, once site selection is completed, ways to creatively reduce the time factor would be addressed.
Michael DiNallo of Turner Construction, another member of the technical team, told the group to expect that the earliest construction could begin would be 12 months from the time of a decision [on the site selection].
Site 3, at Fairfield Hills, where Cochran House now stands, was Tier I due to the fact that the site had been studied and had bids back already for demolition, Mr Mancini said. The site is also away from future potential commercial use, he said.
Mr Benson said that Cochran House had the approximate footprint of the size school being considered, another plus. The team also noted that placing the school near Glanders Field ball fields was a means of pulling recreational opportunities together.
The downside of this option, as discussed by the group, is access off Wasserman Way onto Mile Hill South. Previous discussions with the State indicate that the State would not be willing to install any kind of traffic signal at that intersection. Buses would need to turn into the Fairfield Hill campus at the current light; that was not a major concern in conversations with the bus company, however, said Mr Mancini. Heavy traffic between Route 34 and Fairfield Hills was another concern raised by the group, as was aesthetics. Fencing would need to be placed all around the school there, for safety, since Fairfield Hills is a public space.
“I struggle with this location, in terms of the long term plans for Fairfield Hills,” Mrs Llodra said.
Harry Waterbury reminded his colleagues that comments from the public emphasized the school remaining in the Sandy Hook School district. The Fairfield Hills property is not.
Mary Ann Jacob and James Gaston agreed that the Commerce Road site, another Tier I option, was least desirable of all, due to wetlands considerations, access off of a dangerous Church Hill Road intersection, and having to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on that site. Based on previous experiences with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mrs Llodra cautioned that it would be a long process to build a school there.
John Vouros raised the issue of eminent domain during discussion on the Tier I option at the corner of Bennett’s Bridge and Osborne Hill Roads. That plan requires purchase of a farm on Bennett’s Bridge, as well as property on Osborne Hill, to provide fill for the school building site.
Mr Frank briefly explained the obstacles in an eminent domain purchase, should owners not be willing.
“We could move ahead with eminent domain for a school purpose,” he said. Mr Kortze questioned if the town would have to demonstrate that this was the only suitable site for the school.
“If the town decides it is best, it would probably be okay [to move forward with a claim of eminent domain],” Mr Frank replied.
While the most expensive and biggest endeavor of the five sites considered best, the Bennett’s Bridge option is geographically most central for the SHS district, Mr Mancini said, and future potential for other town use makes it a Tier I option.
“I Could Go Back”
With a sense that the Sandy Hook School options would be one of the sites moving forward, Mr Harwood suggested that the group move on to public comment, and be prepared to extensively discuss those options at the next meeting, May 3.
But before the public comment portion of the evening, Laura Roche asked that the reasons behind not offering a minor renovation to the current Sandy Hook School be addressed.
“There were very significant reasons when looking at renovation,” responded Mr DiNallo. Among the considerations for not proposing a simple renovation, which he said was not practical, were a change to the main entrance; removal of the affected spaces; creating a different vehicle entrance; modifying the building’s exterior for security issues; code modifications; square footage; age of roofs and mechanical equipment; removal of materials related to health issues; and minimum requirements of the State in order to qualify for reimbursements.
“The ratio drove it in the other direction,” Mr DiNallo said, when both minor and major renovation/rebuilding were prototyped and costed.
Dr Thomas Draper spoke first during public comment, stressing the importance of the water supply to a site.
“Public water supply is critical to think about,” he said. Ground water was more likely to suffer from contamination, and a large new well could adversely affect wells of neighbors, Dr Draper said. He urged the group get input from the health department.
Sandy Hook School parent Glenn Schicker pleaded for the group to select the site with the least number of variables, saying it was important for the children who were in school on 12/14 to return before leaving the fourth or fifth grade.
Karen Holden hid behind a dumpster as the events of 12/14 were unfolding, and considers herself a survivor, she told the Task Force.
“I could go back,” she said, to Sandy Hook School.
“We’ve had so much taken away,” she said, including the 26 people killed, children’s innocence, and the sense of safety and security. For the group to consider options that would take people’s homes or properties seems like another loss, said Ms Holden.
Former Newtown First Selectman Joseph Borst spoke Friday night.
“The school didn’t cause the tragedy,” he said. “It was Mr Lanza and his guns. My wife and I would prefer to see the school on the current site, renovation or rebuild,” said the 57-year resident of Newtown. Mr Borst also stated that he believes construction will take so much time that today’s SHS kindergartners may be the only ones to return. He also stated that using the current SHS site would be beneficial to the Sandy Hook Center businesses.
Jennifer Stoltz, who has a first grader at SHS, said that she is interested in keeping the Sandy Hook School site, as long as the school is reoriented.
“If any teacher or parent who lost a child has to go down [Dickinson Drive], that is harm done,” she cautioned the group.
Newtown High School senior Mergim Bajraliu spoke for the third time in as many meetings, and said that it seemed to him that the group was missing many of the guiding principles in their considerations. (The guiding principles were presented during the first meeting by the task force, on April 5.) He also said that he felt that many options offered would take too long to complete, preferring a renovation to a complete rebuild. Mr Bajraliu suggested an online townwide poll to find out what people are thinking about the options.
“I would love to see Sandy Hook School come back completely renovated and renewed,” said Mary Kearns Clark. “Sandy Hook School is the right school and the right site,” she said, wrapping up public comment.
Mrs Llodra addressed the time factor, saying that the process established has things happening concurrently. However, the construction schedule is expected to be 17 to 21 months, regardless of whether a renovation or new building option is selected.
The Task Force finally moved on to decisions regarding which sites discussed were desirable for further consideration at the May 3 meeting.
While somewhat controversial, some members feeling it was too soon to discard the option but many more describing it as “a bad location,” the Bennett’s Bridge site was eliminated. Also taken off the table were the Fairfield Hills site and the site located at the end of Commerce Road.
Laura Roche expressed that taking so many options away, so quickly, left her feeling “boxed in,” and Mr Kortze agreed that he was afraid the group had been “funneled into a particular spot. I would have liked more time to digest the information [provided in the binder].”
The meeting of May 3 will revolve around the Riverside Road site that encompasses the current SAC field and the current Sandy Hook School site. The technical team will provide additional information regarding road profiling and other entrance/exit options to those sites, at the next meeting, promised Mr Benson and Mr Mancini.
“Go back to your books. Talk to folks in the community,” Mr Harwood encouraged the Task Force, in closing. “We’ll see how far we get on the third of May.”
The Sandy Hook School Task Force will meet again, Friday, May 3, from 7 to 9:30 pm, in the Council Chambers of Newtown Municipal Center, 3 Primrose Street. A time for public comment will be provided. There is no meeting Friday, April 26.