The University of Connecticut’s Board of Trustees will meet Wednesday and is expected to authorize sale of its West Hartford campus to Weiming Education Group for use as an international high school.
By Ronni Newton
Weiming Education Group, which formerly expressed its intent to explore purchase of UConn’s 58-acre West Hartford campus last month, has now come to an agreement with the university to buy the property for $12.6 million.
UConn officials recommended Tuesday that the Board of Trustees approve the plans to notify West Hartford of its intent to sell the campus to Weiming. The Board of Trustees will meet on Wednesday, March 30, and although a Letter of Intent has not yet been signed, material terms have been agreed upon and UConn trustees are expected to approve the negotiation of a Purchase and Sale agreement with Weiming Education Group.
The agreement specifies that Weiming will convey ownership of the baseball fields located on the southeast portion of the property to the Town of West Hartford.
UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said that discussions have been ongoing with the Town of West Hartford, and Weiming’s offer does not come as a surprise. “The Town of West Hartford does have the first right of refusal, but has not yet acted on the right to purchase,” Reitz said Tuesday afternoon.
“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,” Reitz said in an official statement by email.
In a statement, Tim DiScipio, CEO of Weiming Education Group USA said, “A vote by University of Connecticut trustees to authorize negotiations would allow Weiming to conduct our due diligence and property examination to determine if our proposal for a private international high school is feasible at the West Hartford site.”
“Our proposal can then only proceed after satisfactory completion of our due diligence examination, preparation of plans, extensive community outreach and engagement, and our receipt of all necessary approvals from the Town of West Hartford after a full public hearing process,” DiScipio added.
Weiming will have 90 days to conduct its initial due diligence, which will include inspections of the interior of the existing buildings, West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said.
UConn will remain in discussion with West Hartford, Reitz said. “The Town 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,” she said in a statement.
In January, Van Winkle received authorization from the Town Council to move forward in negotiations with UConn to purchase the property. Initial inspections and environmental surveys have been completed and wetlands and floodplain details were delineated.
According to Van Winkle and Director of Community Services Mark McGovern, nothing unexpected has been discovered from the inspections that have been made thus far, but the town was still unable to conclude negotiations within the 60 days specified in the agreement with UConn, and will forgo its initial right to purchase the property.
However, Van Winkle said that sale of the property directly to Weiming – “a ready and willing buyer” – makes sense.
“When you talk about uses, this makes sense,” Van Winkle said. The town did not have any intended plans to use the property, and had already received estimates of $6 million to demolish the existing buildings on the site.
It would not make sense for West Hartford to purchase the site with the intent to then sell it to Weiming because UConn would have demanded that the town return the profit. “If we were going to resell it for future use, there would be a ‘clawback,'” Van Winkle said.
“This is an effort to let a ready, willing, and able buyer try to come to terms directly with the seller,” Van Winkle said.
Although the West Hartford Town Council hasn’t taken action on the option to buy the property first, UConn officials told trustees that conversations they have had with town leaders suggest they would likely support the Weiming purchase because it is consistent with the site’s educational use and would be a large, taxpaying local employer.
From the town’s perspective, the sale directly to Weiming is financially beneficial, since the school is a for-profit entity and could also become a valued local employer.
In addition, the impact on West Hartford Public Schools will be transformative.
“I’m so excited about it,” Superintendent Tom Moore said Tuesday afternoon.
The nature of the agreement between Weiming and West Hartford Public Schools will still be the subject of further discussion, but one of the proposals is for Weiming students, who will come from China and other countries throughout the world, to spend their junior and senior years at Conard and Hall, as tuition-paying students.
Through Weiming, the district already has plans in place for 30 students from China to attend high school in West Hartford beginning in the fall of 2016, with 15 each at Conard and Hall, Moore said. The selling point was the schools’ reputation as well as the available courses of study. “It’s the quality education the children will receive here,” Moore said.
“This puts a stamp on West Hartford Public Schools not just as a great school system in the state of Connecticut but also as an elite international academy. It validates what we’ve said for years,” Moore said.
The presence of international students will also directly benefit West Hartford students, and enhance their experience as they learn to become “global citizens,” said Moore.
Declining enrollment will create space at both Conard and Hall, and there will not be any problem accommodating the Weiming students for the next academic year, Moore said. He does not anticipate any space problems in the future.
The fact that the openings will be filled by tuition-paying students is another plus, according to Moore.
The Weiming students will not be directly competing with West Hartford students applying to college, Moore said, which is a concern some residents have expressed to him. All will be applying as international students, he said.
“In a time of budget crises and people threatening to leave Connecticut, we have international students who want to come here. They will be involved in the community, in the state,” Moore said. The benefits to ancillary businesses, and the positive impact on real estate values, will be huge, he said.
“This is a very important change in West Hartford. We’re going to be unique,” Van Winkle said. There are not many foreign school systems that want to build a campus in the United States. “I’m hopeful we will find a way for the outcome to benefit the town, the schools, and the neighbors.”
West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka was not immediately available for comment. Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor, who is a member of the UConn Board of Trustees, has recused herself from discussions between the town and the university.
Weiming will have until December to obtain zoning approval from the town for its plans, Van Winkle said. He anticipates that the Town Planning and Zoning Commission will be the entity involved in the approval, rather than the entire Town Council, because the property, which is in a single-family residential zone, already has a special use permit to operate as a school.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!