Voters could determine fate of 1928 building
If high school project passes, Farmington voters would weigh in on iconic structure
By Ted Glanzer
FARMINGTON – There are few, if any, iconic views in Farmington that rival the stately 1928 high school building on the hill along Route 4.
But the future of the town’s grande dame would be determined after voters first decide on whether to approve a new, $137.1 million high school building – adjusted to $109.55 million after anticipated reimbursement – likely at a referendum in June.
The town is targeting June 3 for the referendum, with a town meeting planned 10 days prior on May 24. The second option is to have the referendum on June 17, with a town meeting scheduled for June 7.
The early and mid-June dates are preferred because they are before the school year ends and people go away on vacations, officials said.
Much to the dismay of a number of residents in town, however, the plans for the new high school presented by the building committee in January called for the demolition of the original structure at a cost of about $270,000.
The building committee, while unveiling the plans for the new high school at a presentation to the Town Council on Jan. 26, said there is no educational use to the 1928 building. Instead, the plans call for the preservation and use of the high school’s 900 wing, which was constructed in 2003.
At that meeting, architects from TSKP Studio said the 30,000-square-foot 1928 building could be preserved for some future use for an additional $1 million, or completely renovated for about $10 million for use as town office space.
At the Town Council’s Feb. 16 regular meeting, councilors had a discussion on how to best proceed with the 1928 structure, and whether to include the potential additional $1 million or $10 million expenditures as questions at the June referendum.
Consultant Ira Yellen of Tall Timbers Marketing, who was hired by the town to help with the project, said, in his experience, having more than one referendum question muddles the process, can be confusing and reduces the chances of success of either question.
With that in mind, the Town Council at a special meeting on Feb. 25 unanimously agreed to remove the demolition of the 1928 building from the new high school project and have voters determine the older building’s fate at a later referendum.
Town Council Chairman C.J. Thomas said in an interview the concept is not tying the two questions together.
“There’s no reason to,” Thomas said, noting the fate of the 1928 building won’t have to be decided unless the new high school project passes. “The term we used is we’re decoupling the 1928 building from the high school referendum. It’s the right thing to do. Only if the new high school passes will we have to make that decision.”
A new high school could be a tall order, considering voters by a decisive 2-to-1 margin shot down a 2017 referendum that called for a new high school after a divisive campaign by a political action committee.
If, however, the referendum passes, Thomas said, a committee could be formed to go over the options and have it put to voters at another referendum.
Thomas acknowledged the 1928 building presents an emotional issue for some voters.
“You hear it from both sides,” Thomas said. “Some people say, ‘My grandparents walked those halls and I don’t want to see it torn down.’ Others are saying, ‘It’s $10 million, we can get office space cheaper than that.’”
He also noted the historic value of the building.
“I love the high school building. It is iconic,” he said. “You drive down the street and see the cupola. I understand why people would like to see that building saved. If get new high school referendum passed and we need to have very serious conversation about it.”
However, as one consultant noted, the exterior of the 1928 building is historic, but the interior, which has been reconfigured numerous times throughout the years, is not.
Ultimately, it will be the public’s decision to determine the building’s fate, if the new high school project passes.
“It’s their money,” Thomas said.
Indeed, Director of Finance Joseph Swetcky told the council at its Feb. 16 meeting that the overall tax increase on an average homeowner (with a home assessed at $227,000) in town was $465.15, due to the town’s debt retirement at the same time the bonds used to pay for the school would come due.
Swetcky said the town would borrow the $109.55 million through four bond issues from 2022 to 2025 in the amounts of $20 million, $45 million, $25 million and $20 million. The bonds would be paid off by 2045, he said.
Tax increases on an average homeowner would be $77 in 2022-23, $189 in 2023-24, $98 in 2024-25, $94 in 2025-26 and $8.50 in 2026-27, Swetcky said. There would be no additional increases after that, he said.
Thomas said if the referendum passes, construction would begin sometime in 2022. He said he would like to know the fate of the 1928 building by the end of next year.
The consultant Yellen, in a presentation that preceded Swetcky, revealed the results of a townwide survey his firm conducted. Tall Timbers mailed surveys to 11,600 homes in Farmington, and received a little more than 1,100 responses, a 9.8% return that, Yellen said, was the highest response rate he’d seen to a survey. The highest number of people who responded were retirees, with parents of school children responding at roughly half the rate of retirees.
Yellen said it was somewhat surprising that just 23% of the respondents were parents of school children, and a particularly low response rate from parents of elementary school children, who are likely to vote in favor of the project.
The project’s No. 1 factor for respondents - 84% - was the cost and the potential property tax increase, Yellen said. Other important issues for respondents were security improvements (81%), fixing notable, longstanding problems at the school (76%) and a better learning environment (75%).
He recommended outreach to the senior living population as well as parents of elementary school aged children.