Members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation announced their intention Thursday to seek federal funds to construct a new Sandy Hook Elementary School in the wake of the second deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history.
In a conference call Thursday, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty said they will file bills in the U.S. House and Senate next week to amend legislation and modify an existing grant program to help the state and the town pay for reconstruction.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything possible in Washington to find a way for the federal government to help fund this project as well,” Murphy said. “We want to amend the legislation so that in limited instances of mass human tragedies the SERV grant can also be used to provide capital dollars to reconstruct schools and municipal buildings.”
The School Emergency Response to Violence grant was created in 2002 to provide counseling and educational services to communities in the wake of traumatic events and currently denies the use of funds for any type of construction or repair. Newtown officials have sought SERV grant money to provide counseling services, but have not yet received any, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Though the Senators and Esty said they are hopeful Republicans will embrace the opportunity to support the grieving community, Murphy admitted passing the legislation will be a “heavy lift” because school construction isn’t funded with federal dollars.
Newtown is already receiving SERV grant dollars to provide counseling services, but Connecticut lawmakers hoped that after the contentious gun debate that their colleagues across the aisle would view the legislation as an opportunity. Twenty first graders and six educators died Dec. 14, 2012, in the massacre.
“We have heard from our colleagues over and over again that they want to help,” Esty said. “And this is something concrete that they can do to help communities that are suffering in an unprecedented way.”
Newtown and the state of Connecticut have already agreed to shoulder at least half of the estimated $60 million cost of the construction, but Blumenthal said he hopes the federal government’s share will be “very significant.”
Timing may prove to be another obstacle for the lawmakers. With Sandy Hook students still attending school in the neighboring town of Monroe, local officials hope to move on construction as quickly as possible. However, federal legislation can often take years to pass.
“The timing issue is significant,” Esty said. “The state is moving very quickly and the community as well because it’s important to their families. We are certainly going to be working to get substantial support and to get it rapidly.”
Murphy said even if the timeline of the legislation lags behind construction, he hopes the new law will still be able to provide aid.
“Even if we can’t provide funding at the outset, we can potentially help to reimburse the town to cover the costs,” Murphy said.
The lawmakers added that though precedent is not on their side, they believe allowing the SERV grant to be used for construction purposes stays in line with the spirit of the legislation.
“What’s necessary is a very modest change or exception so that funding can be provided,” Blumenthal said. “It is a rebuilding and a very important healing effort that is appropriate for the federal government to support.”
The announcement by the legislators comes a few days after a 28-member task force of Newtown leaders unanimously recommended rebuilding the school. The group spent weeks deliberating, hearing public comments and consulting experts about the cost of construction before deciding on May 10 that returning to the old building would be too painful for the survivors.
Newtown residents and the board of education must approve the task force’s recommendations at a referendum. The next education board meeting is scheduled for May 21.