Residents of Newtown, Conn., voted to accept $50 million in state government funds for the demolition and eventual reconstruction of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where one of the deadliest mass-shootings in American history took place last December.
Over 4,500 out of 5,000 Newtown residents voted in a referendum on Saturday to accept the state’s grant, which will be paid in the form of reimbursements toward construction costs of the new school. Demolition is set to begin in December, and efforts to build a new facility on the same site are expected to begin in the spring of 2014, and last through the spring of 2016. State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said that the deal is part of the state’s continuing effort to support the community which is still recovering from last December’s tragedy.
“Obviously, this is a terrible and unique situation that arose last year, and it became pretty clear to everyone that Newtown would need help in order to rebuild and to go on after that tragedy,” Looney said. “I think the building of the new school is part of the response to try to assist that community.”
The vote comes more than three months after the state first approached Newtown leaders with the proposed $50 million. In the time since, the topic became a prominent point of conversation in Newtown, as evidenced by the large numbers that participated in Saturday’s referendum. The approximate 30 percent voter turnout was a significant increase over the average 19 percent turnout for Newtown referenda, said Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s First Selectwoman.
Although a group of 28 elected officials unanimously approved the resolution in May, a city-wide referendum became necessary because a condition in the Newtown charter states that the city can only accept an amount greater than $10 million from the state after a majority vote by its residents. Now that the vote has been settled, reconstruction of the school will proceed as planned.
Llodra also said that, in addition to emotional closure, resurrecting the school space should bring economic benefits to the community. The space has been empty since last December, when Sandy Hook moved its students to a vacated middle school facility in nearby Monroe.
“Sandy Hook is a large neighborhood, and when that school was decommissioned it was like that community losing a major employer,” Llodra said. “There was an economic impact that was significant for that commercial area. So business owners, and the people that live in that area particularly, are very hopeful that the ship will be righted.”
Initially, city and state officials also considered either renovating the existing school or moving Sandy Hook to a new location. But the taskforce of elected officials ultimately decided that the best course of action would be to demolish and rebuild it altogether, according to Newtown Democratic Registrar of Voters LeReine Frampton. She added that revamping the school as it currently stands would have been as expensive as building a new school, altogether.
Though the overwhelming majority of residents did vote in favor of the school’s reconstruction, critics pointed to tax and budget implications as reasons not to go through with the deal. Recent trends of decreasing enrollment in the Newtown public school system also discouraged some voters. However, Lora said that officials would consider repurposing the school space for municipal purposes if enrollment dropped to a certain level.
Despite the logistical concerns involved, Governor Dannel Malloy and Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman voiced their support for the school’s reconstruction in a September press release.
“The people of Newtown greatly decided that building a new Sandy Hook Elementary School is an important step onward for their children and their community,” Wyman said in the release. “This funding is another way the state is continuing the unwavering support our citizens and our government have shown for them since that dark day that still affects us all.”
Frampton said that the state’s decision to fund this project made sense, given its willingness to provide monetary relief to victims of other recent disasters in Connecticut, citing funds to rebuild homes and schools in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Winter Storm Nemo in 2013.
“Personally, I like that the state is funding the project. There are state funds for hurricanes and all that kind of stuff,” Frampton said. “This was a disaster, and, the thing is, no community is prepared to fund [recovery from] a disaster. There’s just not that much money. So I think it’s fair — this is actually helping the town, the community.”
Both Frampton and Llodra said that they’d like to see a memorial to the victims of the shooting raised somewhere in the new school, but specific plans for its design have not been finalized. Now that the state’s financial backing has officially been approved, city officials will begin to consult architects as they develop ideas for the reconstructed building.
“Students and their families have been dislocated from their school because of the tragedy, and we have an obligation to bring them home,” Llodra said.
The Newtown public school District consists of seven schools: four elementary schools and intermediate, middle and high schools.