At a packed Board of Finance meeting, officials prepared to consider the details of a school security plan in the wake of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. As the meeting went on, members from Newtown's education, police and legislative boards had a chance to offer input.
"We have to do something," said finance chair John Kortze. "From the Board of Education's perspective, from the security committee's perspective, from police, how do we get there? What do we do now?"
The board is not obliged to act until March 14, but with grant proposals still in the pipeline and a final report from the town security committee still in the making, Kortze urged expedience. Once finance officials approve the budget, Newtown's Legislative Council will not be able to add items. So if officials want to see armed officers as an item in the budget that will ultimately face a town vote, they'll likely have to add it before the 14th.
Until now, Kortze said, town officials had been "swimming in their own lane." The school board has favored armed police in all Newtown public schools and added 12 additional security officers to the budget. Police have suggested the town fund 11 new officers for the force, assuming officials choose to place armed officers in all schools, and suggest both public and private schools should be covered.
Security committee member Richard Gaines, also on the Board of Education, told the board that body's long-awaited report wasn't ready yet. The security committee's recommendations also include placing officers in all Newtown public schools.
"We're working on it," he said. "We're trying to cover all these bases ... If I knew [the future], I could have won the lottery a long time ago."
Opinions on the proper response range across a broad spectrum -- from no added security presence at all to two or even three armed police officers in each Newtown public and private school. While the Board of Finance took no action Tuesday night, details -- and further questions -- began to emerge from a host of town board recommendations.
Resident Carla Barzetti addressed the board, urging them to go beyond the plan of one armed officer per school.
"Some parents have said if there aren't two armed guards they will be voting No [on the budget]," she said. "I believe more parents aren't here because they believe getting guards for their kids' schools is a given ... There's far too much going on for one lone security guard to contend with."
Police have priced the 11 proposed new officers at $1.2 million. These officers would serve to do more than just patrol the halls -- as School Resource Officers, they would participate in the curriculum, assist with education and be part of the school community. They could also cover beats outside of school, including during the summer or days with no school in session. First Selectman Pat Llodra said she was wary of adding officers on the streets when the focus should, she said, be on schools.
"We have to find a balance somewhere between the obligation to provide safety for public institutions and what the cost is going to be for the taxpayer -- what's reasonable and appropriate to ask taxpayers to bear," said Llodra. "I'm fearful of overreaching because you can wear out that community goodwill very quickly."
"This is a very thorny discussion we're going to have," Llodra said. She suggested the Board of Finance might ultimately deign to use the town's contingency account to fund security.
"You could pick the number that would provide for 'X' service," she said. "That might be best course of action."
Some officials suggested other alternatives, including hiring private security. Police Captain John Rios told the board such a move would save money -- private security guards could cost $30-40,000, compared to more than $90,000 for a new police officer -- but could come at a cost to quality.
"It's very difficult to put a dollar factor on it," he said. "But you're getting a trained, sworn police officer that can act accordingly when you have an incident. That's a big difference from an armed security guard. You get what you pay for -- I think you have to consider that."
Tuesday was the second budget-related meeting for the Board of Finance. At a public hearing Thursday night, many of the same group of parents and PTA members petitioned for expanded armed guards. The board will meet Thursday night, when budget discussion is expected to continue.
Stay connected to Patch for a series of followups to this story exploring the choices and challenges faced by town officials as they decide specifics on funding school security -- including the choice between police officers and private security guards, the extent of new hires and whether to include police security for private schools.