Farmington High School Project Passes 2 to 1

Posted on 15. Sep, 2021 by in connecticut, Education, Portfolio, Recent Company News

From the Hartford Courant

In landslide, Farmington voters approve plan for new high school at second referendum

By DON STACOM

|JUN 04, 2021

Reversing their decision from four years ago, voters in Farmington on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a $135.6 million replacement for the town’s high school. The project passed by more than a 2-1 ratio. That was a complete reversal from 2017, when voters shot down a $136 million proposal in a landslide defeat.

“This is a transformative moment in Farmington’s history,” town council Chairman C.J. Thomas said late Thursday night as educators and town officials from both parties celebrated what they called a bipartisan victory. The town reported the vote total was 4,500 to 2,196 with a turnout of about 33% of the 20,045 eligible voters.

The decision shows Farmington is heavily committed to education, but will still leave the town with a tax rate below its Farmington Valley neighbors so long as future councils practice fiscal restraint, said Thomas, a prominent support of the high school replacement. He credited two advocacy groups — United Farmington and Comprehensive FHS — for the outcome, along with the volunteer building committee that worked more than a year to fine tune its plan.

“The building committee did a tremendous job responding to all the concerns from the last time. They listened to what the people said and took every concern into consideration,” Thomas said. The referendum energized voters on both sides of the issue, and for weeks local streets have been lined with a steadily increasing number of lawn signs urging either “yes” or “no” votes.

Thursday morning, voting officials at the West Woods Upper Elementary School reported they had checked in dozens of voters they hadn’t seen in previous elections or referendums. By noontime more than 200 people had cast ballots there, with eight hours of voting still to go. By comparison, just 126 showed up all day at West Woods for the April 29 town budget referendum.

At the community center in Unionville, Farmington High School senior Hannah Kirkpatrick said she’d voted “yes.” “I go to the high school and I think there are a lot of things that need changing,” said Kirkpatrick, a first-time voter. “It’s a maze in there and when it starts to rain there’s water and mold.” She said her brother will be going to Farmington High and she wants to see it improved.

But at West Woods, Hannah Phelps took a different view. Phelps, a 2017 graduate of Farmington High, said the deficiencies of the building have been exaggerated. “Improvements need to made, but I’m not sure it needs all this,” said Phelps, who voted against the referendum. Lisa Hudson also voted no at West Woods, saying she wants Farmington students to have a safe school but doesn’t think spending $135.6 million is necessary.

Luz Wheeler, however, said she voted “yes” because students need a modern building. Wheeler cited the high school’s status as a community emergency shelter as another reason to be sure it’s in top condition.

A woman walking out of West Woods declined to give her name or say how she voted, but acknowledged it was a hard decision. “You want a good school but you also don’t want taxes to go up. It was a tough decision that came after much thought and prayer,” she said.

The proposal to build an entirely new three-story high school had bipartisan approval on the town council and school board, with educators saying the current building is outdated, leaking, crowded, and out of compliance with accessibility codes. The building committee reported reviewing all other options and concluding the $135.6 million plan was by far the best.

Opponents have argued for several weeks that the town should have pursued less costly measures, such as an extensive renovation. They accused officials of giving taxpayers an overly optimistic estimate of how the $135.6 million price tag will affect taxes.Top of Form Town officials have said a thorough examination ruled out the renovation alternative because it wouldn’t solve some deficiencies and wouldn’t be cost effective in the long term.

Smart Farmington, an opposition group, announced this week that unnamed Farmington residents had filed a complaint with the state elections enforcement commission claiming the town unfairly tried to influence voters with a pre-referendum mailing. It claims the taxpayer-funded mailing crossed the line from informational to advocacy.

School construction projects have grown sharply in cost during the past decade, especially in the Northeast. Several Massachusetts communities have pursued plans for projects costing more than $200 million each.

Norwalk is currently planning a $189 million high school, and Torrington last year got an estimate for $156 million for a combination middle school and high school.

Opponents of the Farmington plan contend that taxpayers can’t be asked to commit to repaying 20 years of debt on a $135.6 million building when several other town schools may need repairs or major overhauls.

When the town proposed a new high school four years ago, voters rejected it resoundingly. Nearly 39% of eligible voters turned out, the highest rate for a referendum since 1995. In that vote, only 2,411 voted yes, while 5,029 voted no.

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