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Report raises more concerns about Region 12 agSTEM program

June 2, 2018

A recent report from the Washington Board of Finance has heightened concerns among residents already asking for a new referendum on Region 12’s upcoming agriscience school.

The program will focus on agriculture and STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — at Shepaug Valley School and serve students from Region 12, Danbury, Brookfield, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown and Sherman.

The report estimates that the agSTEM academy, set to open in the 2019-20 school year, could cost taxpayers up to about $13 million over 20 years should it not meet Region 12’s enrollment projections or if it costs more than estimated.

Residents in Region 12’s three towns — Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington — who are opposed to the plan say these numbers reinforce what they already believed would happen if the plan for the school moves forward. They have sent petitions to their towns asking for a new vote because the plan has changed since originally approved in 2015.

The project was first set to cost $39.5 million for 226 students, but was scaled back at the state’s request to $29.9 million for the 139 student projection.

Many say they will continue to vote against Region 12’s budget for next year — a second referendum is planned for Tuesday — until the project is abandoned or a new vote on the plan held.

“The current budget proposes going forward with agSTEM, which is a financial disaster for this district and an educational disaster for our students,” said Washington resident Erica Ryland. “I will keep voting no until they let the voters have a (new) referendum on the project.”

Ryland contends that the finance report’s estimations are more likely than Region 12’s projections because, through her own research acquired by reaching out to participating towns, she believes officials have overestimated enrollment.

Region 12 projected enrollment at 139 students based on application history for a similar program at Nonnewaug High School. With this number of students, excluding debt, the project would pay for itself over 20 years.

The finance board’s report projects the cost over revenue, including debt, should that number only reach 85, 90 or 95. With these numbers, there will be a shortfall of between $10.7 million and $13.2 million over the 20 years, the report states. It also estimates that, at the 102-student enrollment, the project would cost taxpayers $13.8 million over 20 years if operating costs are 25 percent higher than expected.

Region 12 Board of Education Chair Anthony Amato said the Board of Finance report should have also considered a scenario where the program does better than estimated to give residents a full picture.

“It’s OK to be critical, in fact I welcome that criticism, but I also would like to hear balance,” he said. “There was a bit of cherry-picking.”

Amato added that it is important to note, in both Region 12 and the finance board’s projections, that operating costs factor in inflation over the 20 years, but that revenue was kept flat.

This likely will not be the case in reality, he said, because the state has the ability to change tuition rates. Just recently rates were increased by $1,000, he said, and the state’s Board of Education is lobbying for it to be set higher.

“None of us can sit here and predict what (tuition changes) might be...but over the next 20 years, the odds are good,” he said.

Washington resident Howard Barnett said he also plans to vote against Region 12’s budget for next year in protest.

“It’s been obvious the enrollment projections have proven to be wildly too high,” he said. “That just tells you something about how this has been oversold.”

But Amato said using next year’s budget vote is a “misguided” way to make a statement about the program.

“I think it’s right for people to express their concerns about whether or not they believe the budget is reasonable or not, but to use it to make a point, where does that lead?” he said. “We don’t have an option of not funding the school district so at some point we have to get a working budget.”