The town of Farmington, population 26,000, will have a vote Thursday on a school construction project that has sparked debate with its price tag of $135 million.
The plan to construct an entirely new high school will take four years to complete but Connecticut’s dire fiscal situation has some town officials and members of the public concerned about the scope and size of the project.
According to the town’s “statement of need” the current high school building needs to be rebuilt to improve walking distances for staff and eliminate hallway congestion for students. The plans also include expansion the cafeteria and auditorium, adding a second floor to parts of the school and security upgrades.
The town council approved $135 million in bonding on May 23 but the true cost of the project amounts to $184 million over 20 years, according to figures presented at a special town meeting.
Proponents of the project believe the construction will enhance the learning environment for students and be a long-term investment for the town.
In an open letter published on Facebook, five former town council chairmen wrote “we believe that quality education is significantly enhanced by adequate and efficient facilities. Farmington High School in its present condition is neither an adequate nor efficient building.”
Farmington High School is highly rated in national and statewide surveys and ranked as the 8th best high school in Connecticut and the 495th in the nation, according to U.S. News.
Justin Bernier who served on the Farmington High School Building Committee says the project is too big and too expensive. “We don’t want this crazy project but we do want an overhaul and to get things fixed,” Bernier said.
The project has become a contentious issue in the town, sparking the formation of a group called ResponsibleFHS, which has voiced opposition to the massive construction project through a website, flyers and signs posted around town. Minutes from the June 5th town meeting showed residents split between supporting the construction and concern over the high cost and tax impact.
But the state of Connecticut’s fiscal problems are trickling down into the debate.
The plans to fund the Farmington High School construction include a $25 million grant from the state of Connecticut, which may not be guaranteed during a time of major budget deficits.
The state has already begun cutting back funds for school projects, particularly to wealthier towns, and any budget deal is expected to have a major impact on municipal finances through decreased state aid for town projects.
Beth Kintner, a supporter of the high school project and chairperson of Farmington Future, an advocacy group dedicated to investing in town services, told the town council “the chances of State Grant reimbursement would be greatly diminished after July 1st,” according to town meeting minutes.
The state bonded $562 million last year for school construction projects and the Department of Administrative Services has added another $450 million in school construction grants to the 2017 priority list. The school construction grant program currently has “in excess of 600 construction projects in various stages of completion,” according to a 2016 bond analysis.
Debt service is one of the fast-growing fixed costs that is driving the state’s ongoing deficits. Debt service payments for 2016 amounted to $1.68 billion, according to the state comptroller's website.
School construction grants must be approved the state legislature, which is almost evenly divided between the two parties and faces a $5.1 billion deficit over the next two years.
All three major credit rating services recently downgraded Connecticut’s bond rating and neighboring Hartford verges on bankruptcy, a fact that has at least one town councilman worried about the future of Farmington if the project goes through.
“Our Capitol city and neighbor next door is on the verge of bankruptcy and is knocking on our door and our neighbors doors looking for a hand out," Councilman Jon Landry wrote in a statement. "The headlines aren’t favorable for the financial climate of Connecticut and haven’t been for years. This proposed project is simply not prudent or sound planning at this time.”
The Farmington school system serves 3,935 students and according to a study commissioned by the town council, student enrollment has declined 6.8 percent since 2004, similar to the rest of the state. The same study projects the number of students to increase slightly to 4,023 by 2020.
The school had expanded in 2003, adding additional wings just as school enrollment peaked. The 2003 renovations included building a new cafeteria, which will be replaced in the new plans.
Bernier believes that the state’s reimbursement program is incentivizing towns to take on big school construction projects.
The state uses a scale for determining the amount of reimbursement a town will get for remodeling or construction of a new school. The state reimburses towns 10 to 70 percent for a brand new construction and 20 to 80 percent for a renovation. The amount of the reimbursement is determined by the town’s wealth.
The Farmington High School project is technically new construction, as 86 percent of the existing building is being torn down and rebuilt. The town estimates the state will reimburse 19 percent of the project.
“We’re tearing down perfectly good classroom wings because we might get more state funds to gut it,” Bernier said. “The 2003 wing isn’t even paid for yet,” he added, noting that the town took out 20 year bonds to pay for the previous additions.
Part of the problem with the existing school is the cafeteria which was part of the 2003 renovations and has to serve its first lunch at 10 a.m. in order to get all the students served. Proponents of the plan say the school does not have a large enough cafeteria to serve the needs of its 1,201 students.
The construction is expected to add 10,000 more square feet to the school and bring Farmington High School in line with state standards. The plans include adding additional space to the cafeteria but the addition would not have much of an impact on the lunch schedule.
According to town meeting minutes, the principal of Farmington High School said the expanded cafeteria would allow the lunch time to be moved up to 10:35 a.m.
Bernier says the school lunch problem could be solved with scheduling changes like using a half-period for lunch rather than a full-period.
Construction plans also include removal of tennis courts built three years ago. Under the proposed plans, the eight tennis courts installed in 2014 would be torn up to make a bus turnaround area. Six new tennis courts would be built in another area of the school grounds.
The debate in Farmington has become a familiar one in wealthier towns across Connecticut.
In Wilton, a $50 million renovation to the Miller-Driscoll Elementary School resulted in the formation of the group Sensible Wilton, which opposed the project, which originally had a $3 million price tag. In Fairfield, the $21 million renovation and expansion of Holland Hill Elementary was opposed by a town watchdog group called Fairfield Taxpayer.
In both cases, critics pointed to high costs, declining school enrollment and uncertainty due to the state’s fiscal problems which could ultimately impact property taxes.
But the former councilmen, including Jeff Hogan and Mike Clark, feel the cost will ultimately be positive for the town, even if it comes with property tax increases. "High quality education systems in any community will influence property values in a very positive manner," they wrote.
The referendum is scheduled for Thursday, June 15.
Town Manager Kathleen Eagen did not return our request for comment.