A public information will be held at Town Hall on Monday, May 2, to discuss the future of the UConn West Hartford campus and the proposal by Weiming Education Group to purchase the property directly from the university.
By Ronni Newton
The Town of West Hartford will decide by May 14 whether to purchase the 58-acre UConn West Hartford campus under terms that the university has already agreed to with Weiming Education Group, but some residents and town officials have raised questions about a partnership with West Hartford Public Schools.
Weiming Education Group, a for-profit business which is based in China, would like to establish an international high school academy on the West Hartford site, with enrollment open to students from around the world – including Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States.
West Hartford Public Schools are in the early stages of an exchange student relationship with Weiming Education Group, and according to Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore, the exchange program set to begin in the fall of 2016 is separate from any plans that Weiming has to purchase the campus, as well as potential plans to have students at the international school enroll in West Hartford Public Schools for a portion of their studies.
The Boston Globe published an article on April 27, 2016, stating that in the Weiming proposal, “Local officials saw a potential windfall of private money and an antidote to the schools’ declining enrollment.” The article asserts that opposition to the arrangement is growing in West Hartford due to the relationship with a for-profit foreign school and possible competition in academics and athletics from the foreign students, and it also raised concerns that Weiming may be “skirting federal visa laws” and is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security.
Reaction to the article, which was shared widely on social media on Wednesday, indicated that residents have questions about Weiming and concerns about potential plans for the international students to attend Conard and Hall.
The immediate issue that the Town of West Hartford is dealing with is whether or not it wants to purchase the UConn property by the May 14 deadline set in the agreement with UConn. The cost of the property would be $12.6 million – the same price offered by Weiming. If the town decides to purchase the property, it would have 60 days to complete the deal.
A meeting scheduled for May 2, at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall Auditorium was set for the purpose of obtaining public input regarding that decision, and representatives from the town, West Hartford Public Schools, and Weiming Education Group plan to attend that session.
Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said that at the May 2 meeting he will address questions about how West Hartford would purchase the property if that is the decision that the Town Council makes. He will provide options and the costs for those options, and will discuss the potential of subdividing the land and/or developing it for single- or multi-family residential occupancy and commercial uses.
“Our discussion is, ‘Should we buy it?'” Van Winkle said. He said that although developers might have interest in the property for commercial use, it is zoned for single-family residential with a special use permit for a school and the location in a residential neighborhood would raise serious concerns about issues like traffic if rezoning were to be sought. In addition, a significant portion of the property is wetlands or floodplain land and cannot be developed.
The cost of upkeep for the property if the town purchases it and does not immediately develop it is estimated at $500,000-$600,000 per year, Van Winkle said. The cost to demolish the buildings on the site is estimated at $6 million.
Mayor Scott Slifka said he thinks the Weiming proposal sounds intriguing, and the fact that the superintendent is so excited about it merits looking into the plan. “We’re going to be very steady and deliberate about it in grand fashion, and not rush to judgement,” Slifka said, adding that there is “no deal” in place with Weiming and the town, other than the exchange program.
“We’re looking forward to Monday’s public information meeting and giving residents the opportunity to learn more about our potential international private school,” Tim DiScipio, CEO of Weiming Education Group USA said in a statement.
Before finalizing the purchase, Weiming has 90 days to conduct due diligence, and that process is still ongoing. DiScipio said they will be “spending the coming weeks and months examining the property and its buildings to determine if our proposal is in fact feasible.”
In February, Weiming Education Group officially expressed its interest in purchasing the West Hartford property through a letter sent to Town Manager Ron Van Winkle. With the town’s knowledge, Weiming also entered into negotiations with the University of Connecticut which is statutorily obligated to give the West Hartford the first right of refusal to purchase the property.
At the same time, after UConn declared the property as surplus in November 2015, the Town of West Hartford had already started its own assessment of the site, doing environmental assessments, and surveying and mapping the wetlands and flood plains that cover a large portion of the property. On January 13, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle was authorized to enter into negotiations with UConn for purchase of the campus.
On March 29, Weiming formally expressed its intent to purchase the UConn property for $12.6 million, and on March 30, the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees authorized the negotiation of a purchase and sale agreement between UConn and Weiming Education Group. Regarding that action, UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said in an official statement: “The Town [of West Hartford] has the right by law to match the terms of any offer that UConn receives, so UConn officials will also formally notify them of the Weiming discussions. If the town wants to buy it on the same terms as Weiming has agreed to, UConn would sell to the town.”
Weiming’s Exchange Program with West Hartford Public Schools
West Hartford has already entered into a relationship with Weiming for an exchange program that will begin in the fall of 2016. “One of the great things about the partnership is that we will get to know the Weiming kids,” Moore said. In addition, it will give the town a chance to get know Weiming better, and determine if the town wants to do business with them in the future.
There have already been 21 students from several Weiming schools in China who have committed to come to West Hartford as exchange students under an F-1 visa which permits one year of enrollment in a K-12 public school. Moore said that several more students, perhaps a total of 25, may ultimately be involved in the program. They will be enrolled as juniors, and will be split evenly between Conard and Hall high schools.
Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow said that the exchange students will be in West Hartford for two years, but the second year they will be concurrent students at the University of Connecticut, earning college credit under the Early College Experience program, in which many Conard and Hall students also participate. The specifics of that arrangement will be negotiated between Weiming and UConn, Morrow said.
The students will live in a dormitory at the University of Saint Joseph.
The 21-25 students who are part of the exchange program will pay $13,000 tuition to West Hartford Public Schools each year for both their junior and senior years, Moore said. The tuition figure differs from the calculated “per pupil expenditure” of $14,579 which incorporates all costs, including special education, Moore said.
Although they will be awarded diplomas from West Hartford Public Schools, Moore said that they are in the U.S. on visas and will be considered part of the international student pool for the college application process.
The 21 students who have already been admitted to the exchange program were interviewed personally by Morrow and Director of Summer and Continuing Education and Diversity Roszena Haskins, who traveled to China this spring and met with more than 50 students at three different campuses.
“Part of meeting them and their teachers was to be able to evaluate their transcripts and make sure they are on track and can take classes with our students,” Morrow said. “Their language skills are exceptional,” he said, and he does not anticipate that they will need ESL instruction.
The trip to China was paid for by Weiming, not by West Hartford tax dollars, Morrow said. He said it was an important part of the process and due diligence, and he and Haskins met the students and their parents, and visited their schools.
Under the terms of the exchange program, West Hartford students will also have the opportunity to travel to China.
“Every district has a piece in their mission statement about global citizens. West Hartford actually lives that,” Moore said. This year during April break students from Conard and Hall traveled on school-sponsored trips to Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, England, Germany, Austria, and China.
“This is just one of the things that makes West Hartford so unique and a great community for our kids. We anticipate that this will continue a long tradition that started with Intercambio, the Spanish exchange program that has been in place for decades.
Weiming’s Future Plans with West Hartford Public Schools
If Weiming moves forward with the plans to open an international academy, West Hartford Public Schools may enter into an arrangement to have the students attend Conard and Hall for their last two years, under an arrangement similar to the one for the exchange students. The Weiming students would pay the $13,000 tuition, be concurrently enrolled in college during senior year, and graduate with a diploma from West Hartford Public Schools.
“We’re not at this stage doing anything more than investigating,” Moore said, and he said the exchange program will “help us get to know any speed bumps that should be anticipated.”
The exchange program and any future programs are not contingent on one another, Morrow said. “There’s no deal.”
DiScippio said that it’s premature to discuss a specific plan for the international academy students to study at Conard and Hall. “Since we are not sure if we will be able to proceed with a proposal at this time, we have no plans on what, if any, participation there might be with the West Hartford Public Schools,” he said in a statement.
Moore does not believe that the international students would be taking away opportunities from resident students. “We don’t do class rankings,” he said, and because they are in the U.S. on visas like the exchange students they will be part of the international pool for college applicants.
West Hartford Public Schools are expecting declining enrollment in future years, and will have capacity for additional students. The financial benefit of having tuition-paying students could allow for additional opportunities and activities, Moore said.
“One of the things that makes our applicants [to college] so attractive is the course of study that we offer. With declining enrollment we may not be able to keep up the total number of classes,” said Moore. Having the Weiming students would allow the offerings to be maintained, if not expanded.
Moore said that there would be a limit to how many Weiming students could attend West Hartford’s high schools, and it would be based on the capacity created by declining enrollment. “The most students we could ever admit is 250,” he said.
Weiming’s purchase of the UConn property and development of an international academy is not tied to a relationship with West Hartford Public Schools. “If we decide it’s not appropriate, then they’re not in our schools. I’m sure others may want them,” said Morrow.
Republican Town Council members Chris Barnes and Chris Williams are quoted in the Boston Globe article as being concerned about selling space in West Hartford Public Schools as a commodity.
“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency. We haven’t had a full discussion,” Barnes said. He said he is looking forward to Monday night’s discussion and opportunity to listen and ask questions.
“It’s too much to risk the possible negative impact on the schools. We don’t have enough information,” said Barnes. “I don’t think we should be selling our seats.”
“I have strong reservations about the plan. There’s no evidence that the influx of international students into our system would benefit our students,” Williams said. He also doesn’t like the idea of West Hartford being a “test case.”
Barnes is also concerned about allowing the students to remain in West Hartford Public Schools for more than one year by extending a relationship with another institution. “It seems like an end-run around the one year period,” he said.
Although West Hartford would be its first international campus, Weiming already has exchange programs in other U.S. cities, including Oxford, MI. Oxford High School has a total of approximately 1,600 students.
Approximately 200 residents in Oxford have formed a group, called “TEAM 20,” that is concerned about the Chinese students who attend Oxford High School on F-1 visas. The group is interested in getting media attention, and Slifka believes that group prompted the Boston Globe article. TEAM 20 operates a closed Facebook group, and We-Ha.com reached out to several of the administrators for comment but did not receive a response.
The Globe article states that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has launched an investigation “after residents complained that Weiming and the district were violating the visa laws,” and Oxford Director of International Operations Jill Lemond, who does the visa paperwork, believes the complaint was made by TEAM 20 and is unfounded.
“The Student and Exchange Visitor Program and Department of Homeland Security routinely monitor U.S. schools that participate in international exchange programs for compliance,” DiScipio said. “We’re aware that this was the case in Oxford, MI, and have been told by school officials in Oxford and eight other school partners across the state that their program and ours are fully compliant and that our business practices are sound.”
Lemond said that she is one of three Designated School Officials who utilizes the Student Exchange Visitor Information System. “There have been no alerts, no suspension of our ability to issue I-20s,” she said. Lemond said that TEAM 20 has tried to involve the FBI, the state government, and anyone who will listen, claiming that the laws are being violated by allowing students to stay in the country as students for two years.
“We are within the laws. They may disagree with the laws,” Lemond said. “I know they have lodged complaints. They don’t agree with the direction, but to suggest we’re breaking laws, that’s not the case.” The Oxford Chinese exchange students are concurrent students with nearby Rochester College for their senior year, and must meet higher standard than other Rochester students.
Lemond said that TEAM 20 is a small group of people and not representative of the community at large which has had a positive experience with the Chinese students. The Oxford school district made a decision in 2007 to “go global” and since then have gradually grown the program from teaching Mandarin, to teacher exchanges, to student exchanges.
There are currently 86 exchange students in Oxford, 85 from China and one from Germany, she said. “The program is flourishing.” The second year students help teach Mandarin, and the cross-cultural experience is so beneficial.
DiScipio said that Weiming will determine the feasibility of building the international academy by this summer. “We will have more concrete plans to share and will spend the remainder of the year engaging the citizens of West Hartford, spending the time to address concerns and answer questions,” he said.
“One thing I know about West Hartford residents is that they are very engaged in the issues that concern the town and want to have a voice. Our challenge is the best way to communicate in today’s busy world. As much as the Town will publicize an issue, people may not become aware until it is too late. This proposed school could bring a significant change to our community and I hope we will get a large turnout at the meeting next week so that they can ask questions,” Minority Leader Denise Hall said.
“Maybe not that many people know about Weiming because it’s new, but all of the residents know about UConn and no one has given us a proposal except Weiming and the Children’s Museum,” Slifka said. The Children’s Museum has expressed a desire to move to the UConn property, but according to Van Winkle does not have the $15-$25 million in funding available for the deal.
“I want to make sure we are very transparent relative to buying, arranging an agreement, and having appropriate dialogue. We will have a good community discussion and reach a community consensus,” said Slifka.
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