By Richard Weizel
NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - A special task force of elected town officials on Friday recommended tearing down Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were shot to death in December, and rebuilding it on the site of the massacre.
Under the panel's recommendation, the school, which has been closed since the shooting rampage, would be demolished and reconstructed at an estimated cost of $56 million in the next 17 to 21 months.
The rebuilt school would retain its name.
The unanimous decision by the 28-member panel, rendered after a three-hour public hearing, is subject to final approval by the Newtown Board of Education, and the expenditure would then have to be approved in a referendum.
In the meantime, Sandy Hook's 450 students, comprising kindergarten through fourth grade, will remain at Chalk Hill School in the neighboring town of Monroe, officials said.
Town officials had said the Sandy Hook School Task Force had until Friday to reach a decision to avoid a one-year delay in the project. The panel faces a June 7 deadline to apply for state and federal funding that local officials hope will provide the bulk of the project's costs.
George Benson, Newtown's director of planning and land use, estimated before the meeting that the cost of renovating the existing building would have been about $47 million.
The plan recommended on Friday calls for a new facility with somewhat more interior space than the 69,000 feet within the existing school.
Adam Lanza, 20, a former Sandy Hook student, opened fire at the school on December 14, killing 20 first-grade students and six educators before killing himself in a rampage that began after he shot his mother to death at their home.
The Newtown task force was to have decided the fate of the building at a five-hour meeting a week ago, but emotional pleas from teachers and parents to have it demolished delayed a vote.
Parents, teachers and residents are deeply divided over whether the school should be renovated, rebuilt on the same site or on a parcel about a mile away on the campus of the town's Municipal Complex.
"We lost 20 children, and 26 people overall, and to tear the school down would mean that (Lanza) is winning," volunteer firefighter Peter Barresi said at Friday's hearing. Barresi was among the first emergency personnel to arrive on the scene that day.
With a son in the first grade who survived the carnage, Barresi was among those parents who pressed to have their children return to a renovated Sandy Hook School building rather than forcing them to attend school outside the Sandy Hook district.
Other parents and teachers pleaded with the panel to move the school to a new location, saying they could not bear to return to the existing building or even the site of the shooting.
Selectman James Gaston, a member of the task force, said before the vote on Friday "it would be a better choice to build the school at a location off-site," but in the end he joined the rest of the panel in recommending to rebuild on the existing grounds.
In other school shootings in recent U.S. history, including after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, towns had elected to demolish parts of the school rather than build entirely new facilities.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Bernadette Baum, Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott and Paul Simao)