Region 12 residents call for new AgSTEM vote
Even as the groundbreaking for the Region 12 agriscience school draws closer, residents in the district’s three towns are calling for the project to be reconsidered because it has changed since a 2015 referendum.
The program would be held at Shepaug Valley School and focus on agriculture and STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. It would serve students from Region 12, Danbury, Brookfield, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown and Sherman. Bethel has not committed.
“The project was initially sold as a win-win-win,” said Janet Buonaiuto, a Washington resident. “There’s a lot of changes at Region 12 that weren’t budgeted for.”
When the project was approved in 2015, the $39.5 million plan was to remodel the school’s 27,860 square feet of unused technology space for a shop, labs, classroom and plant science and build a 9,751-square-foot addition. Those areas would have a lab, a hydroponic greenhouse, sales and engineering areas. Two new buildings would also be built — a 17,200-square-foot equine facility and a 12,150-square-foot animal facility.
Starter equipment and vehicles, campus upgrades, renovated science labs and parking improvements were also included.
But after state officials asked the district to scale back its enrollment projections to numbers they considered more attainable, the plan changed. The latest version would use more space within the existing school for academy operations, reducing new construction to 35,750 square feet. It is set to cost $29.9 million, with the state paying nearly $24 million.
Buonaiuto said the current project should be presented to the public and another referendum held so residents can better plan for the undertaking or opt out of the program.
“At least at at that point the people will know what the financial obligation will be,” she said.
Residents in Region 12’s towns have submitted petitions to the boards of selectmen calling for town meetings to share the latest information on the project. Washington and Bridgewater officials said it was a school issue and decided not to schedule meetings. Roxbury has yet to respond to the petition.
Superintendent Patricia Cosentino said the project has already gotten the needed approvals and there’s no turning back at this point. Construction is set to start later this year. The academy is expected to be open for the 2019-20 school year.
“The ball is really rolling down the hill now,” Cosentino said. “There’s no stopping it.”
The public is invited to the building committee meetings to get project updates, but a larger informational meeting isn’t scheduled, Cosentino said.
She said the public had a chance to offer input during the referendum, where the project was overwhelmingly approved.
Some residents said voters didn’t have all of the correct information and the project they voted for then is much different than the one going forward now. They said the cost to the towns has increased for building and operations, while the enrollment projections have decreased.
“A lot has come to light since the referendum,” said Jay Kronfeld, a Roxbury resident who gathered about 50 signatures in about a week, more than twice the number needed to call for a town meeting. “There’s a groundswell of people in all three towns who are very concerned.”
Student enrollment has been rolled back, at the state’s request, from the original 226 projection to 139 students.
“There are residents who are just very nervous about the AgSTEM project and the financial cost it may have on the towns,” Cosentino said. “I believe they are underestimating the buzz this program has throughout Fairfield and Litchfield counties.”
She said there aren’t enough spaces at the AgSTEM program at Nonnewaug High School to meet the demand. Offering the program here will help the community and the school district, she said.
Families from surrounding towns are expected to shop at area businesses and the school is meant to help address Region 12’s declining enrollment.
Cosentino said they already have a robust recruiting program to attract eighth-graders in surrounding towns and encourage them to apply. She said they hope Bethel will join.
Some of the school’s needed repairs will be covered during this project, 80 percent of which is funded by the state, Cosentino said. She said without this money, those repairs — including the heating and air system and science labs — would be entirely covered by taxpayers.
But residents don’t believe the district will hit the targeted 139 student figure, based on current enrollment at the Nonnewaug program or commitments from the districts expected to send students to Shepaug’s AgSTEM program.
“That’s even pie in the sky numbers, or in my opinion, make-believe,” Kronfeld said.
Region 12 gets about $10,000 for each student — a mix of money from the state and sending district — but even with this reimbursement, residents said there would still be an operational deficit the residents will have to pay for.
“Our feeling is you could recruit until the cows come home, but the financial success depends on what towns are willing to spend,” Buonaiuto said.
Ed Wainwright, a Bridgewater resident, said they collected more than 50 signatures, but was disappointed when the town decided not to move forward with a town meeting. His strategy now is to vote against the Region 12 budget, which he believes is the only way the board will listen to the residents.
“Maybe then the Board of Education will think twice before proceeding with another building project,” Wainwright said.