WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — A year ago, the leaders of this quiet suburb found themselves faced with an unusual — and highly lucrative — proposition.
A Chinese company wanted to build an international academy in town, then funnel hundreds of students from the academy into local public high schools, where students would pay thousands in tuition to the district.
Local officials saw a potential windfall of private money and an antidote to the schools’ declining enrollment. As radical as the proposition was, it quickly moved forward.
Now, opposition to the uncommon arrangement is quietly growing. Last week local officials learned the Chinese company is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for possibly skirting federal visa laws in a similar program it runs in Michigan.
In addition, local residents have raised concerns about entangling public schools with a foreign company whose primary goal is profit. They also wonder how the arrival of several hundred foreign students might impact classes, athletics, and competition in college admissions.
“Public schools are a public resource,” said Christopher Barnes, a town councilor in West Hartford, a middle-class town of about 61,000. “They shouldn’t be for sale.”
In many ways, the controversial proposal underscores broader concerns about the thriving international education industry, which has made rich a network of intermediaries who connect US high schools and colleges with full-tuition-paying Chinese students hungry for American diplomas. Eager to pad their budgets, schools have been known to look the other way on common problems, including ghostwritten essays and rampant cheating by these students on the SATs in China.
But while Chinese students have poured into private high schools and colleges at record numbers for a decade, their arrival at public high schools is relatively new and governed more strictly by federal visa laws. Many public high schools in Massachusetts enroll some tuition-paying foreign students but nothing like the scope proposed in West Hartford.
The Chinese company, Weiming Education Group, educates 40,000 students on 42 campuses in China, according to a letter it sent West Hartford. In 2012, the company began sending some students to study at “partner” high schools in the United States. Students typically pay Weiming around $40,000, and the company pays districts about $10,000 per student.
The company’s West Hartford plan centers on its likely purchase of the University of Connecticut’s serene 58-acre satellite campus in West Hartford, which it would renovate into a school. Weiming has offered UConn $12.6 million for the property, and the deal is nearly final, although the town could still match the offer and buy it instead.
UConn, meanwhile, is hardly a disinterested seller. The university’s Neag School of Education is considering establishing a teacher training program with Weiming, and last month the company paid UConn $46,000 to fly seven university officials on a trip to China. A UConn spokeswoman said the property sale and the Neag School’s negotiations are separate.
The international academy would enroll perhaps as many as 500 students from around the world, said chief executive Tim DiScipio, who leads Weiming’s US subsidiary. Those students would ideally transfer into local high schools after two years at the academy, he said. Local teachers and students would also have the opportunity to do exchange programs in China, he said.
“It’s this kind of cross-cultural benefit that really gives a student a unique perspective,” said DiScipio, who joined the company less than two years ago after a career in education software.
Separate from its plan to build an academy, Weiming has already signed a three-and-a-half-year agreement with West Hartford for a pilot program that will bring as many as 30 Weiming students to the district this fall for two years of study.
‘Public schools are a public resource. They shouldn’t be for sale.’Christopher Barnes, West Hartford town councilor
The contract also says local school officials will help develop a curriculum that can be taught in Weiming’s schools in China and says the company may send its teachers to be trained in West Hartford. Last month, Weiming paid for an eight-day trip for West Hartford Assistant Superintendent Andrew Morrow and a colleague to interview its students in China.
School officials said they are excited for a chance to bring more diversity to their two high schools, which are about 40 percent non-white in their total student body of 3,000, and acknowledged the tuition revenue will help the district, which enrolls about 100 fewer new students each year than it graduates.
“I would love to place some of those students in our schools; so would the neighboring communities,” said West Hartford Superintendent Tom Moore.
Those students in the pilot program will live in dorms at nearby University of Saint Joseph, pay $13,000 annual tuition to West Hartford, and earn US diplomas, according to the contract. Local school officials are in talks with UConn for the university to sponsor students’ second-year visas as part of a dual enrollment program.
Yet such an arrangement is at the core of Homeland Security’s investigation into Weiming’s similar setup with the school district of Oxford, Mich., a township of 3,500 north of Detroit.
Under federal law, foreign students may attend a public school for only 12 months total and must reimburse the district the full cost of their education. In Michigan, students attend the high school for two years, enrolling the second year in a dual-enrollment program with a local college, which sponsors the second-year visas.
The Homeland Security investigation was launched last year after residents complained that Weiming and the district were violating the visa laws, according to e-mails reviewed by the Globe.
Additional problems have beset the program in Oxford. William Skilling had served as superintendent while he was also a paid consultant for Weiming and subsequently signed a contract between the district and Weiming, according to documents obtained through a public records request by local residents reviewed by the Globe.
The residents have pushed the district for more information and also learned that Oxford receives state tax dollars to educate the Chinese students, even though the students also pay the district $10,000 in annual tuition.
“They have to skirt the rules to make it lucrative,” said Kallie Meyers, a leader of the residents group in Michigan. She said West Hartford should also ensure its contract with Weiming prohibits conflicts of interest among local administrators.
“No meals, no trips, no perks, no sightseeing, no promos,” she said.
Moore, the West Hartford superintendent, said he has spoken with Michigan officials about their experiences. He learned about the ongoing federal investigation last week and is seeking more information, he said.
“My reputation is way too important for me to engage in anything that’s anything less than aboveboard,” Moore said Friday.
Oxford school officials said they are unaware of a federal investigation and reported only positive experiences with Weiming. DiScipio said the company is aware of allegations made to federal officials but unaware of an ongoing investigation or any wrongdoing.
Over the weekend, Weiming officials in Beijing said the company was assured by Oxford administrators that its program was a legal way to offer a second year of study, according to an e-mail sent on the officials’ behalf by DiScipio.
As more residents in West Hartford raise questions about the potential partnership with Weiming, a public forum has been set for May 2 when locals will hear from company officials. The town has until May 15 to match Weiming’s offer and buy the campus.
Some local officials, including the town manager, Ron Van Winkle, have expressed support for the proposal, but others are skeptical.
“I do not believe that public school education should become a commodity,” said Christopher Williams, a town councilor.
Resident Susannah Chen, whose daughter is in elementary school, shares Williams’s skepticism. She and her husband lived in Shanghai the past four years, and said they witnessed an education system often motivated by ruthless competition, with anything available for a price. She worries those values might also come to local schools.
Chen also worries her concerns will sound xenophobic, a criticism some in town have already put forth. But her hesitance, she said, would be the same no matter where students come from.
“What does racism have to do with privatization of a public resource?” she said.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.