In a 2½-hour meeting that took place in Council Chambers at the Newtown Municipal Center, Friday evening, April 5, facilitator Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation led a group of 27 people representing the Board of Education, Legislative Council, Board of Finance, and the Board of Selectmen — collectively, The Sandy Hook School Building Task Force — through the beginning of what will be a four to five week process to reach consensus for the Board of Education, as to the future of the Sandy Hook Elementary School building.
The Harwood Institute, out of Bethesda, Md., has twenty years of experience helping people “develop into Public Innovators, build Boundary Spanning Organizations, grow common spaces for innovation and learning, and cultivate the conditions, norms, and productive narratives that help their communities move forward,” according to its website.
Keith Alexander, Neil Chaudhary, Daniel Honan, John Vouros, Laura Roche, Richard J.Oparowski, Daniel Wiedeman, Joseph Girgasky, Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra, Paul Lundquist, John Kortze, Kathy Fetchick, Daniel Amaral, Joseph Kearney, Debbie Leidlein, Robert Merola, James, Gaston, James Gaston, Jr, Cody McCubbin, George Ferguson, Jeffrey Capeci, Philip Carroll, Richard Gaines, Will Rodgers, MaryAnn Jacob, George Benson, and Rob Sibley, all members of the task force, were present Friday. William Hart was unable to attend.
“There is no roadmap for this kind of process,” said Mrs Llodra, in opening remarks to the group and the small number of townspeople attending the meeting. “We come as elected representatives faced with a significant, serious challenge,” she said, and expressed appreciation to those who had volunteered to give up the next several Friday nights to work toward the goal of handing a workable recommendation to the Board of Education, in a timely manner.
Facing government meeting schedule conflicts and timing in terms of the calendar, Friday evenings were the only times that would allow the group to complete their task in a timely manner, she explained.
The group will seek a blend of two criteria in coming to a decision, said Mrs Llodra. Ten guiding principles that emerged from a series of constituent meetings with residents, and with victims’ families, survivors’ families, and faculty and staff, are the primary criteria that will be taken into account.
Those principles, with no ranked order, are:
*Do not redistrict Sandy Hook School students.
*Locate school in or immediately proximate to the geographic region called Sandy Hook.
*Ensure sufficient land at site for school, playground, parking lot, and ball field.
*Perceptions and emotional status of faculty/staff should influence recommendations.
*Emotions and perceptions of families of victims and of survivors are very influential.
*Opinions of Sandy Hook School parents and community must be considered.
*Location/site must be compatible with safety expectations.
*Return students to Newtown as soon as good planning can allow for.
*Both short and long-term thinking should guide site selection and building design.
*Consider positive and negative physical attributes associated with chosen site (i.e. Dickinson Drive, Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue main station, The Children’s Adventure Center).
Making The Big Decisions
The second piece of information the group will be considering is the technical criteria. Mr Benson and Mr Sibley have worked with a team that has examined 40 site possibilities. The best of those sites will be presented at future meetings. Group members will receive a binder of the site possibilities and be walked through those options at the next meeting.
In a summary handed out to participants, the technical criteria are explained. “The technical criteria must suitably respect the guiding principles established for Sandy Hook School. They must do so without violating the tenets of logical development which guide typical site design. These premises need not be independent or adversarial, but can be a partnership process which lead to a finished school, which embodies hope, learning, healing, and a caring community.”
“Our task as a group of 28 is to make the big decisions,” said Mrs Llodra, before handing over the meeting to Mr Harwood. It will be the responsibility of the Board of Education to develop the end specs, she said.
Briefly introducing himself and his colleague, Carlton Sears, Mr Harwood said that he believes Newtown has the resiliency and collective strength to come together.
“People see Newtown as an example of this,” he told the group.
Mr Harwoods's goal, he said, is to help the group of 28 to construct a “good conversation,” through exploring the questions on the table and by bringing up questions that group members may not want to ask. They will create a process the builds, said Mr Harwood, and a process that is very transparent. Additionally, there will always be room to return to issues as the meetings progress from one to the next.
“We may not be able to get full agreement from all 28 sitting around the table,” stressed Mr Harwood, but they would hopefully come to a consensus that was agreeable to all.
Mr Kearney questioned what it would take to move a consensus forward.
“20 to 8? 15 to 13? Who makes that call? I hope it’s 28 to zero, I might add,” said Mr Kearney.
While discussion did not completely answer Mr Kearney’s question, Mrs Llodra concluded that “I hope we would have a choice between two very good options,” when the time came to make a recommendation.
Mr Ferguson noted the importance that “What we do here brings the community of Newtown together, rather than divide. We don’t want to do something that will create rifts.”
Pulling randomly from the list of guiding principles, Mr Harwood spent the next hour putting each of the ten items before the group for discussion. Several were agreed upon as essential for consideration without further discussion.
Mr Honan brought up the question of what exactly is meant by the geographic region called Sandy Hook, referred to in one point.
“We are talking about the Sandy Hook School district, not a postal district,” Mr Benson clarified.
The discussion also involved the issue of redistricting, which more than one member stressed had been a crucial point for many Sandy Hook families involved in 12/14.
“We said we would not split up the [SHS] families,” said Ms Jacobs, and Ms Fetchick emphasized that point.
Cody McCubbin assured the group that the Board of Education had made a decision to not redistrict SHS students.
When the question of whether other Newtown schools would be redistricted to combine with the Sandy Hook School population, Mrs Llodra interjected, “We don’t want to prejudge where the conversation will go.”
John Vouros suggested emphatically that all 28 members of the group make a point of visiting SHS at Chalk Hill in Monroe, “and feel what that building is all about. Walk the halls, up and down, and see for yourself how fabulous those staff and kids are doing. It will help tremendously,” he said, in making decisions.
The guiding principle points of emotions and perceptions of those impacted by 12/14 brought further discussion around the table. Mrs Llodra said that every group that contributed to previous conversations had identified that area as one that was critical to a final decision on the future of the school, while admitting that “as we move away from the date of 12/14, feelings change, making the decision ever more complicated.”
“What we’re really relying on,” Mr Harwood pointed out, “is ‘What is our collective knowledge?’”
Mr Kearney and Mr Vouros pressed for an answer to a question not directly listed in the guiding principles: who is paying for this?
“We think we know,” answered Mrs Llodra. “We have all heard the same commitments, but I urge caution on that assumption.”
It was agreed that discussion on the financial commitment of the town would need to be addressed at a later meeting, as more information about the site options became available.
“We need to make a decision that is right for our community and find a way to make that work,” said Ms Jacobs.
As the first half of the meeting wound down, Mr Chaudhary added that he saw the Newtown community at large as wanting to see “that Sandy Hook gets what it needs. I think we are doing that, by following these principles.”
Technical Criteria, Public Comment
The final hour of the meeting was devoted to a power point presentation by Mr Sibley and Mr Benson, presenting technical criteria that will form the basis of the next meeting. Mr Sibley said that the technical team had not had an easy task, compiling the information on sites in a 45-day period that normally would take up to a year, and being always respectful of the guiding principles. Their goal, he said, was taking the conversations and marrying it with site selection.
Closing the first meeting was a time for public participation. SHS first grade parent and first responder Peter Barresi spoke, reiterating the importance of not redistricting the students, and adding that he hoped that meant not incorporating other schools into the SHS family.
“We are part of Newtown,” he said, but there will be special needs, particularly for the younger students at SHS, as time goes on, he added. While appreciative that efforts are moving as fast as they are, Mr Barresi also stressed the importance of getting the Sandy Hook students back to Newtown. “Monroe has been excellent to us, but it is not an elementary school,” he said, noting different physical attributes of a middle school facility versus an elementary school.
Newtown High School student Mergim Bajraliu, who has a sister at SHS, also stated that he believed that SHS should “stay together without interference.” Mr Bajraliu also asked if on the list of sites being considered, if the current site was one. Mrs Llodra responded that as the group has not yet seen the binder, it could only be assumed that was so.
Mr Bajraliu also gave the group of 28 two other questions to consider.
“How is it going to be evaluated if the public agrees with the final consensus? How can we come to a consensus when it is not certain who is paying for this?” he asked.
The group also heard briefly from Clifton Allen of Washington, D.C., who wanted to present his vision for the use of the actual Sandy Hook School building. Mrs Llodra respectfully reminded Mr Allen that what to do with the existing facility, should it not be remodeled and reused, was not the focus of the group, and suggested he contact town officials later.
In responding to final concerns from the group that perhaps what to do with the current Sandy Hook School building, should it not be utilized as a school in the future, Mrs Llodra cautioned that the decision making could get very twisted, and that keeping the focus of the group very narrow might be the best path, for now.
The next meeting is scheduled for Friday, April 12, from 7 to 9:30 pm, in Council Chambers of Newtown Municipal Center. Each meeting will allow time for public comment.
“This is really important work we are doing,” said Mrs Llodra. “I think we’ll do it well.”