This is the first in a two-part interview with First Selectman Pat Llodra and Interim Superintendent John Reed on the Oct. 5 ballot referendum. Patch brought some questions from readers, as well as frequently voiced concerns, to the table.
Any number of complicated issues revolve around Newtown's Oct. 5 decision to accept or reject a $49.25 million bond from the state of Connecticut. This week, First Selectman Pat Llodra and Interim Superintendent John Reed will make their pitch to residents in a series of informational sessions. While the factors surrounding the choice are complex, Llodra and Reed say the answer is simple.
Town officials pored over these issues this spring as they narrowed down options to the current plan: demolishing and rebuilding Sandy Hook Elementary School on its existing site. While the process was difficult, Llodra and Reed say they view the current situation as a "win-win."
"The state has said -- to no charge as far as property taxes or bonds: 'We wish to make you whole,'" Reed says. "We had seven schools prior to this. Every other town had the same resources on Dec. 13 as they have today. When you look at it that way, it's easy to see why we view this as win-win, regardless of trends."
Llodra and Reed both emphasize Newtowners will not have to foot the cost in local taxes, although Newtown taxpayers would pay a share of the $49.25 million in state taxes along with other Connecticut taxpayers.
"There's absolutely no local tax implication," Llodra says. "None. And no obligation to repay any of this to the state of Connecticut. This is a gift to the town of Newtown from state legislature and the office of the Governor."
Reed adds the gift was made "on behalf of all the taxpayers of Connecticut."
"They did it because they have confidence the decision-making around the issue was the right and best decision-making," Llodra continues. "We're being given this great gift that demonstrates confidence in us. There's no resource issue, no tax implication. It's a gift and we would not be serving the best interest of our community if we don't accept it."
'We Need to Have Seven Schools'
Reports show enrollment on the decline in Newtown this year, but Llodra says the town can't take the chance based on those numbers -- say, by sending Sandy Hook students to another school. In any case, she says, there's nowhere for them to go.
"We know that right now we don't have enough space to accommodate the kids at Chalk Hill," she says. "If we brought them back, we don't have space for them. Our elementary population is declining a little bit, but if we don't build a school, and we find ourselves not having enough space, we have no options available."
Reed says he's not ready to believe the enrollment drop is permanent. He says his experience has shown enrollment is cyclical -- recalling that it dropped by 25% before rebounding sharply in his first years as superintendent.
"I don't think this is a good year to use as a base year for population forecast," he says. "The in-and-out migration, as it was impacted for the current school year, happened 6 months after the tragedy. School opened eight months after. I'm sure there were some decisions made this year based on those circumstances. And if the economy improves in the next two or three years, that will impact the birth rate."
"I was told there are empty classrooms at Reed," wrote commenter 'John.' "This may not be true but it makes a lot of sense to add an addition on Reed and have the other schools absorb the remaining grades if feasible. Spending $50m on a new SHS and then close up Reed later sounds like a terrible waste. The wound will never fully heal so let's face it now smartly instead of regretting the decision later."
Llodra says it's out of the question. The town doesn't have enough space to accommodate Sandy Hook students alongside other Reed students, the school isn't built to house elementary school students and adding on would be "a physical impossibility."
"Reed School has 1,000 kids," she says. "If it's going to be reconfigured, there has to be some place for those 1,000 kids to go. In the future, the 6th grade could go to the middle school, but right now they can't accommodate 500 additional kids. We can't wait to figure it out and find we don't have a solution."
Reader Barbara Brimmer suggested another compromise.
"Go with the new Sandy Hook school," she said. "A new school is less costly to maintain. Close one of the existing elementary schools. Redistrict as needed."
Reed says closing any school and redistricting would be risky.
"I know the parents and the Board of Education do not take redistricting lightly," he says. "It's a major upheaval. Whoever the next superintendent is going to be -- if they're told Newtown only has six schools, their first question is, 'Where do I put the Sandy Hook students?' If there's no Sandy Hook School, one would assume some are going into [Newtown's other elementary schools.] There would be some fairly significant reorganization."
Long story short, Llodra and Reed both say, the town will not be complete with only six schools, no matter which school were to close.
"For us to risk that another space might be available a couple years hence is a disservice," says Llodra. "We need to have a concrete plan that says we're ready and poised to educate. That's our obligation."
Stay connected to Patch for the second part of this interview later in the week.