Region 12 Agriscience plan draws accolades and brickbats
WASHINGTON — When Region 12 school officials say their plan to build an agriscience center at Shepaug Valley School will help reverse the district’s declining student population, they have parents like Jessica Granger in mind.
Granger, of Danbury, told the board she enrolled her young daughter at Roxbury’s Booth Free Elementary School in hopes the girl could someday attend an Agriscience STEM program in Region 12.
“I’m excited that the agriscience program could be in place by the time my daughter, now in kindergarten, is a high school student at Shepaug Valley School,” Granger said during an Oct. 5 public hearing on the $39.5 million proposal, which goes to a public vote on Tuesday.
Granger, herself a product of the agriscience program at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, said she and her husband are even considering moving from Danbury to Roxbury.
The proposed program has drawn the attention of The Diebold Foundation, which has pledged up to $1 million for the center if voters approve the plan.
“The Diebold Foundation’s very generous donation of $1 million is a ringing endorsement for the AgSTEM program at Shepaug,” Superintendent of Schools Pat Cosentino said. “Words cannot express our deep appreciation. Today, we have a million reasons to practice an attitude of gratitude in Region 12.”
Cosentino said the funds will be used to establish “the best academic agriscience and STEM program in Connecticut.”
Agriscience STEM up for vote
Region 12 voters go to the polls from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to vote on appropriating $39,491,387 for costs related to design, construction, furnishing, equipping and financing of an Agriscience STEM Academy facilities on the Shepaug Valley School campus, with 70 percent reimbursement from the state anticipated. Polling sites by town:
Bridgewater: Bridgewater Senior Center, Hut Hill Road
Roxbury: Roxbury Town Hall, North Street
Washington: Bryan Memorial Town Hall, Bryan Plaza, Washington Depot
However, the plan has plenty of opposition. Some say official projections for the agriscience school population are likely much too high. And, they add, estimates of the cost of running the school are likely much too low.
If either or both projections are wrong, the argument goes, Region 12 would be saddled with a high bond debt and an additional 60,000 square feet of buildings to maintain. And if the state’s financial difficulties mean it can’t honor a pledge to pay its customary 70 percent of school project costs, the towns could be saddled with much more than their $11.8 million share.
“You’re weighing too much on an unknown variable to reach this $11 million cost,” Roxbury resident Joel Einhorn told the board.
The proposal to create the state’s 20th agriscience program includes a 26,500-square-foot addition to Shepaug Valley, a 20,000-square-foot equine facility, a 10,000-square-foot animal facility, a 4,900-square-foot equipment garage, plus renovations to 20,000 of existing space.
Academic programs would cover a wide range of subjects, from biotechnology to veterinary science to turf grass management, all part of an agriscience field that now engages some 20 percent of the American workforce. Graduates could continue their education in two- or four-year colleges or go directly into one of 300 agriscience-related careers.
Voters in the three towns that make up Region 12 — Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington — will be asked to contribute a combined $11.8 million to pay for the project, with the remainder to be paid by the state.
Supporters of the idea say the risks are well worth running in a district that has seen its student population, which once neared 1,200, fall to 727 this year and could fall to 460 by 2023 if nothing is done to reverse the trend.
An agriscience program would not only induce families like the Grangers to move into the district, they content, but would attract tuition-paying students from districts within a 30-mile radius.
Diane Lash Decker, of New Preston, believes that families like the Grangers show that the “sacrifices we make now are the gains we secure later.”
A yes vote in the referendum shows a commitment to “community, stability, comprehensive curriculum, social opportunities — and most importantly my kid’s future,” Decker said.
Washington PTO president Ken Schultz sees “great enthusiasm” for the plan among parents in his town.
“The kids in elementary school now are the future of this region,” Schultz said. “When they go into high school, they will have excellent choices to prepare them to compete in the 21st-century job market. This agriscience program is it.”
Board member Anthony Amato, a financial analyst, said new revenue from tuition should begin to outpace operating costs by the fifth year and outpace bond payments by the sixth year.
“This project has the likelihood to draw families to the region,” Dwyer wrote in a SOS statement. “We envision the addition of a STEM program is just one piece in a greater strategy... This AgSTEM program being proposed, coupled with the towns’ efforts, can create a stronger more sustainable region-wide system for years to come.”
First Selectmen Barbara Henry in Roxbury, Mark Lyon in Washington and Curtis Read in Bridgewater all support the proposal, as does candidate for first selectman in Washington Debbie Forese.
But critics of the plan say the enrollment projections are questionable at best.
Bridgewater resident Loy Wilkinson calculated that first-year enrollment in the Shepaug program would likely be closer to 124 students than the 226 projected by the Board of Education. That difference could mean failure for the AgSTEM program, he said.
Bill Macgeorge, also of Bridgewater, said many of the same objectives of the agriscience proposal could be achieved without new facilities.
“You don’t have to build new,” he said during the public hearing. “There is a better way: Create a high school STEM academy. Spend the necessary money ($4 million) to bring the science labs up to date. Increase the salary level for STEM teachers. This would attract students from out of district and even reduce the drain to private schools.”
Besides, he asked, what if the state doesn’t come through with its commitment? Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is already cutting spending from the recently passed state budget, he said.
Finally, Macgeorge argued that it is Nonnewaug’s agriscience program director, Bill Davenport, that attracts applicants and makes that program a success, a situation that might not easily be duplicated.
“Where is Region 12’s Bill Davenport?” he asked.