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Sandy Hook School Opens, NHS Auditorium Project Continues



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There were a number of building projects in the Newtown school district in 2016, and the completion of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School building was certainly the largest.

As 2015 came to a close, approval for the fifth phase for the Sandy Hook School building project was passed by the Board of Education for furniture, the plans for furniture placement, technology equipment, and custodial equipment. Within the year those plans would not only be fulfilled, but they would be in action, with students filling the halls and classrooms.

The first few months of 2016 were filled with effort at the site. While the roughly $50 million building looked finished on the outside, Public Building & Site Commission Chair Bob Mitchell told the Board of Education at its May 17 meeting, there was still work left to do on the inside. Furniture used at Monroe's Chalk Hill Middle School while Sandy Hook School was housed there would be moved to the new building.

Essentially, Mr Mitchell told the board, the new building would be ready by mid-July, when inspections and state approvals would commence.

"A good team has worked very hard to get things done, and done kindly," said Mr Mitchell.

By the end of July members of the local community - including faculty, emergency responders, and realtors - were invited for special tours and introductions to the new school grounds at 12 Dickinson Drive. For many it was the first time back since the tragedy on 12/14. Open house events for the public were also held, starting at the end of July.

While at the site on July 27, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, Consigli Construction Project Manager Aaron Krueger, and Newtown Clerk of the Works Bill Knight pointed out why the facility could serve as a model for the way new schools are developed across the state and, perhaps, the nation.

"The opening of the new school is not bringing [the community] full circle to the event. What it is doing is taking a large step forward. For people who believe that Newtown, and particularly Newtown's schools, have completely recovered - we haven't," Dr Erardi affirmed. "This is a large step forward for the staff and faculty of Sandy Hook School that have worked hard to make sure that it will be a fine opening day for 380 youngsters."

Architect Barry Svigals of Svigals + Partners, who led the design team as it undertook the immense challenge of crafting plans for the new Sandy Hook School, and Mr Mitchell both offered insights as they looked back on the process of bringing the new facility to fruition.

"We were all under a spotlight and a microscope as the process proceeded," Mr Mitchell said. "No school in the country had ever needed to be developed [with input from] the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, other security agencies, FEMA, state agencies, town departments, and then some."

Mr Svigals said his team aspired to create a project that might become a first-of-its-kind model.

"I think our greatest contribution was to create a process that allowed for the neighborhood, school administrators, teachers, past students, and others to offer their creative insights," he said.

More tours for the public were held in August, and All-Start Transportation employees were also offered a special tour on August 17 for the company's annual back-to-school meeting.

All-Star Transportation Newtown Manager Alan Colangelo, Dr Erardi, and Board of Education member John Vouros welcomed the group to the school.

For the first day of the 2016-17 school year, August 29, Dr Erardi said he was hopeful it would be quiet start. The superintendent said he hoped, "We return to great teachers, we return to great learners, and [that] we do not return to [the] media."

Dr Erardi estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people had walked the new hallways and learning spaces prior to August 17.

pproximately 60 percent of the Sandy Hook School staff that were employed at the school prior to the events of 12/14 would return to teach for the 2016-17 school year, with most of those not returning made up of retirees, those who had relocated, "and a handful" who chose to work elsewhere, the superintendent said.

Between 365 and 375 students were expected to start the new school year at Sandy Hook School.

As educators and school staff welcomed students across the district for the start of the 2016-17 school year, students at Sandy Hook School were also welcomed home by a large flag on display at Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue and a sign welcoming them home.

Dr Erardi later said he spent the entire school day at Sandy Hook School, as the opening of the new building made this year's first day of school "very special."

Soon school assemblies and other school events would be held in the completed building.

NHS Auditorium Renovation

At the start of March, the Public Building & Site Commission learned the budget for the $3.6 million Newtown High School auditorium renovation project would only cover about half of the total work the staff and district officials had hoped to achieve.

Project designers and officials then undertook the challenge of craft alternative plans.

At the Board of Education meeting on May 17, Mr Mitchell said the construction documents for the project were nearly complete. While he said the project was tight, he also said his commission was confident it would remain within budget.

All items that would be needed to have the NHS auditorium operational on its first day were referred to as "day one items" and things that could be added later to the space, like extra lighting and sound equipment, were "day two items."

By July 6 Mr Mitchell said the renovation work was waiting for the state to approve and sign off on documents for the project to go out to bid. Once approved, Mr Mitchell said the commission would have a better understanding of the project's time frame.

When completed the new space will have almost 1,000 seats, it will be complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the acoustics on the stage will be markedly improved.

In September the Board of Education learned from an update by Service Project Manager Geralyn Hoerauf of STV-DPM, that the new estimated completion date for the renovation is June 2017.

Ms Hoerauf attributed the delay to a number of factors, including reapplying for the grant due to procedural issues, and time spent redesigning it "to fit $6 million worth of improvements into a $3.6 million budget."

In October, Ms Hoerauf told the school board the timeline for the project had construction starting near the beginning of January 2017.

Declining Enrollment Leads To School Closing Discussion

Newtown Middle School was also discussed during a number of meetings in 2016, after the board charged a Future Forecast Committee in February to research school facilities to provide the school board with possible next steps for school facilities usage, due to projected declining enrollment, and with making a final recommendation and analysis of costs and savings associated.

In July, the committee presented nine options for closing either NMS or an elementary school. The board later decided not to close an elementary school. On October 19 the school board learned of "Option I," which would have reconfigured the district to have kindergarten through fourth grade in the elementary schools, fifth through seventh grade at Reed Intermediate School, and eighth to twelfth grade at NHS.

The Board of Education voted unanimously not to close NMS at its December 6 meeting, which was held in the Newtown High School cafetorium to accommodate the more than 200 people who attended.

Following the December 6 meeting Board of Education Chair Keith Alexander said, "I do expect discussion to start on how best to use available space soon. The Facilities Committee had several options that we could look at for potential shared use of buildings, so we will probably review those first."

A panoramic view of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School taken July 27 illustrates how designers collaborated with input from hundreds of community members to achieve a natural and welcoming facade mirroring Newtown's rolling hills, peaked roofs, and weathervanes. (Bee file photo)
The main exterior courtyard of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School features a small amphitheater-like classroom area; the colorful custom window panels help reflect sunlight away from interior-facing classrooms. (Bee file photo)
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