The West Hartford Town Council held a four-hour public meeting Monday night regarding the Town’s potential purchase of the UConn West Hartford campus.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s Town Hall Auditorium was packed with a capacity crowd of approximately 500 people who came to listen, learn, and weigh in on whether or not they think the Town should purchase the UConn West Hartford campus.
Town Manager Ron Van Winkle gave a presentation about the economics of the decision – a critical factor impacting the decision the Council must make prior to June 17, 2016. The decision would have been required by May 14, but on Monday morning the Town learned that it had been granted an extension by the University.
A presentation was also made by Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore regarding an exchange program involving 21 to 25 Chinese students set to begin with Weiming Education Group this fall, as well as the potential for a larger exchange program in the future.
Chinese-based Weiming Educational Group has provided UConn with a letter of intent indicating that it would like to purchase the campus for $12.6 million for the purpose of creating an international academy, and Tim DiScipio, CEO of Weiming Education Group USA, also gave a presentation to the crowd.
Thirty residents spoke at the meeting, with many expressing a desire for West Hartford to retain control of the property and others asking for additional information that they still felt was missing even after listening to the evening’s presentations.
Van Winkle summarized the events which led to the decision the Town now faces. The timeline began in 2012, when he and Mayer Slifka first learned of UConn’s interest in closing the West Hartford campus and moving to downtown Hartford. Those plans were made official in June 2014 when UConn’s Board of Trustees authorized the move to Hartford.
The Town met with area neighbors in 2014, and also began an initial evaluation of the facilities. Van Winkle said he reached out the University of Saint Joseph and University of Hartford, neither of which were interested in the campus. The Central University of Finance and Economics in China expressed some initial interest in the site for a university, but that never materialized.
Van Winkle said that advocates brought up the possibility of putting affordable housing on the site. There was also interest from non-profits – a bandshell for the West Hartford Symphony, a theater for the Park Road Playhouse – all of which would be nice but there was no funding behind the ideas.
The Children’s Museum has previously expressed a desire to move to the UConn property, but the cost of that move would be between $15 and $20 million.
Weiming first entered the picture in June 2015. Van Winkle said he was told that they contacted UConn directly and toured the campus, but he did not meet with representatives of Weiming until September 2015.
When UConn’s Board of Trustees passed a resolution in December 2015 of its intent to sell, West Hartford was given the opportunity to make an offer. Van Winkle was officially given permission to negotiate with UConn on Jan. 15, 2016. “We had hired a civil engineering firm to evaluate the site work. We met with the University multiple times over the coming months,” Van Winkle said.
UConn offered the property to the Town of West Hartford for $14.9 million, but that offer was declined.
In February 2016, Weiming Education Group officially expressed its interest in purchasing the West Hartford property in a letter sent to Van Winkle. With the town’s knowledge, Weiming also entered into negotiations with the University of Connecticut which was determined to be statutorily obligated to give the West Hartford the first right of refusal to purchase the property.
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, which has not yet been executed.
“That’s where we stand today. There’s a buyer who says they are interested in purchasing the site. We have the right to step in and purchase the site for the $12.6 million they offered,” said Van Winkle.
Economics of the Site
The UConn property is 58 acres, much of which is encumbered by wetlands and floodplains, Van Winkle said. Seventy-four percent of the property is regulated by the wetlands commission, and because of that only a small portion of the property is able to be developed.
The buildings total 185,000 square feet, and the estimated cost of demolishing them, including abatement of hazardous materials, is $5,500,000.
The Town currently receives $101,022 in P.I.L.O.T. (payment in lieu of taxes) from the state.
Van Winkle spelled out why the economics don’t work for most types of development on the site, other than office or retail which would require rezoning and likely be rejected by the neighborhood.
The property is zoned for single-family residential occupancy, but for the economics to work out a developer would have to build 180 lots – far more than would be possible. A multi-family residential project would have to be approximately 360 units to work economically, Van Winkle said.
The Town doesn’t need the space for any municipal or school buildings.
A public park, which many have suggested, would require wetlands permits and a special use permit, Van Winkle said. The cost would include the $12.6 million purchase price plus $5.5 million to demolish the existing buildings, plus the cost of park and field construction – a conservative estimate of $20 million total, said Van Winkle.
To finance that, bonding would have to be issued which would include an average carrying cost of $1.65 million. Annual operating costs could be $250,000. Total annual expenditures for the park could be $2 million. “That’s a big deal for us,” Van Winkle said.
“If we don’t purchase the site there is a secondary school for international students that has offered $12.6 million. They will have 90 days from signing of their agreement for due diligence and until end of year to get local approval,” Van Winkle explained. If the deal is approved, which at a minimum would require approval by the Town Planning and Zoning Commission, West Hartford is likely to receive about $500,000 in new taxes.
West Hartford Public Schools Involvement
Although the decision before the Town Council right now is about whether or not to purchase the UConn property, that decision has become intrinsically linked with the relationship between West Hartford Public Schools and Weiming.
Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore explained the exchange program that has been put into place and is set to launch this fall. That “pilot exchange program” for which 21 students have already been selected, is the only deal that has been agreed to at this point.
The agreement was signed in January, and has been discussed publicly with the West Hartford Board of Education, Moore said. It was not done secretly, and the visit to China by Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow and Director of Summer and Continuing Education and Diversity Roszena Haskins was to meet with the students and their families. Is was not, as asserted by Michigan-based TEAM 20 which has rallied against a Weiming exchange program in its rural town, a lavish sightseeing trip.
“They heard these stories of these fantastic kids that would enrich our own kids’ experiences,” Moore said. They also answered questions about what West Hartford is like. “Those students would be welcomed, would become our kids.” Moore said he hopes that the Chinese students have not read some of the things about them that have been said about them online.
Moore reiterated that he is comfortable charging $13,000 in tuition, the same cost that out-of-district students are charged when they are given permission to attend West Hartford Public Schools in instances like when a family moves but wants their child to remain in the high school.
Mayor Scott Slifka asked Moore if there is already a deal for an influx of students as an “out-of-town newspaper” has asserted, referencing an article last week in the Boston Globe.
“We have an agreement for 21 students,” Moore said. “Nothing has ever been agreed to or will be until we vet it. I’d have to go before the Board of Education and say we would have to expand.”
Moore reiterated statements he has made previously that the Weiming students will not harm existing students’ ability to get into college because they will be treated as international students. The high schools do not rank students.
As for any future expansion, Moore said it will be a question of how much room we may have due to declining enrollment. The most that could ever come is 125 in 11th and 125 in 12th grade, he said, with 60-65 in each high school during the years of lower projected enrollment. It will also be an exchange opportunity for West Hartford students to go to china for breaks, during the summer, or for a semester.
Council member Chris Barnes asked about several issues raised in the Boston Globe article, including the motivation to enter into a relationship with a for-profit Chinese company. “We are not engaging in partnership because we are small town in Connecticut in a financial pinch looking to fill our coffers,” Moore said.
Council member Chris Williams asked Moore about allegations made in the Boston Globe article about Homeland Security investigations into the way Weiming uses arrangements with colleges in order to allow students to remain in public schools for two years rather than the one year period allowed under an F-1 visa. Students in West Hartford would be taking ECE classes through UConn. “I can tell you right now, I wish I recorded the conversation. She took word of an outside group in Michigan that there is an investigation. I think this is good for our kids. Everything we are doing always will be up front, on the level, vetted by attorneys, vetted by me. We will engage in the most ethical behaviors,” Moore said.
Details from Weiming
Tim DiScipio, CEO of Weiming Education Group USA, provided some back ground on the company and programs it has in place in other U.S. districts.
The West Hartford campus will be an international high school serving international students who will board and receive instruction. The decision to move forward will be made in the summer once the due diligence, which includes an evaluation of the structural integrity of the buildings, is complete, he said.
DiScipio had not previously made public a proposed size for the school, but said Monday that Weiming would “target about 500 studnets who would board and attend classes on our campus.”
DiScipio added that “Interest in developing an international school is not dependent on our students attending West Hartford Public Schools.” He said the deal was never contingent on an arrangement with West Hartford and when asked directly said that he has spoken with other districts.
Slifka asked DiScipio about allegations of a Department of Homeland Security investigation and problems with the visa program. DiScipio said the allegations originate with a group in Michigan that is opposed to the program, and that he is not aware of any improper conduct. “We are completely unaware, districts are unaware. We have only heard one resident saying we are and then the Globe article came out,” DiScipio said.
After several hours of presentations, a majority of the 30 residents who spoke to the Council still expressed some concern and many said they preferred to have the Town purchase the property.
Rick Liftig said that this is a complex issue, and having the town purchase the property would allow for the greatest control. Although Weiming might not pose a problem now, Liftig said, no one knows what might happen in the future if the property changes hands. “Purchasing now gives us flexibility, either for a sale or leasing situation.”
John Hegarty, who lives on Lawler Road right near the property, said as soon as he heard UConn would be selling he hoped it would be made into a beautiful park. He’s concerned that if Weiming purchases the campus, “I’m afraid of 500-700 adolescents moving behind our house. Who looks after them in the evenings,” he said.
“Weiming hasn’t even done feasibility studies and expects us to make a decision,” said Bob Tellar. He said he agrees with Council member Chris Williams, that the use of public schools in this way is “wholly unprecedented.”
Judy Wyman Kelly said she is all in favor of cultural exchange but finds Weiming’s boarding school model to be “problematic.” She urged the Town to purchase the property. “It’s very different when the parents are thousands of miles away. Do we have a wraparound system?”
Susannah Chen said it’s difficult to disentangle the purchase of the property from West Hartford Public Schools, and expressed concern that Weiming’s business model is backed by an education broker. She provided the Council with copies of brochures that appeared to be recruiting Chinese students as young as eighth grader to enroll in a program to come to West Hartford to attend their junior and senior year at Conard or Hall and take AP and ECE courses. Chen recommended that the Town purchase the property to retain control of the site.
Other residents supported Weiming’s plan, with some reservations.
“It seems to me that Weiming is floating a lot of general ideas but does not have the numbers,” said resident Claudia Lange. She said that while the deal could be good for the town, issuing visas is a very big deal and something that needs to be dealt with very carefully. She said the process has not been very transparent, and feels there are “many details the town and schools are not aware of yet.”
Terry Schmitt, a former member of the West Hartford Board of Education, said that after listening to the presentations he realized “there’s an awful lot we don’t know.” The Town wouldn’t know what to do with the property and Weiming wasn’t clear about their plan, he said.
“Given those two options it seems to me the responsible thing is for the town to let Weiming buy this property. Buying it for $12.6 milion we don’t have,” he said. Schmitt said he does think it would work out.
Danielle Wu, a third-generation West Hartford resident whose husband is Chinese, expressed some of the strongest support for Weiming and disappointment by some of the other comment. “I feel a lot of talk xenophonia,” she said.
Wu said the experience of having the international students will be a great cultural opportunity, impart a love for American values upon the Chinese students, and provide financial benefits as well. “I don’t support increasing taxes for no purpose, and it’s not practical to buy the property just because Weiming might not have long term business viability,” she said.
“I hope that we will not vilify the students because of an article we read about a Michigan group or because fear of a little competition,” said Lauren Drazen.
“If someone wants to buy land for a shoe store the town doesn’t ask for a business plan for shoe store,” said Diana MacPherson. She said the Town should allow the sale to Weiming because we can’t afford it and should not do bonding. “The Town can retain control of the property through zoning. … we should allow Weiming to give it a try.”
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