In an about-face, the town of West Hartford, Conn., has moved to purchase a University of Connecticut satellite campus and preempt a Chinese company’s plans to build an international academy on the site.
One week after a heated four-hour public meeting in which many residents questioned the plan, town officials met behind closed doors Monday morning and decided to buy the 58-acre parcel, according to two officials.
The tentative agreement calls for the town to pay $5 million for the site; the Chinese firm, Weiming Education Group, had been set to pay $12.6 million.
The decision, if formally approved by the council next week and by UConn trustees, would derail Weiming’s ambitious intentions.
Over the past year, the company had sought to entice local officials with a plan to funnel hundreds of students from the academy into local public high schools, where students would pay tuition to the district. Some local officials were supportive, seeing a potential windfall of private money, an antidote to declining enrollment, and a way to further diversify classrooms.
But Town Councilor Christopher Barnes said Monday that he and other councilors were moved by strong opposition they heard from residents after Weiming’s plans became public in a Globe article.
“In the face of strong public opposition to the proposal, I think the town listened, and that was a factor in wanting to gain control of the parcel,” said Barnes, who had opposed the deal with Weiming even before the hearing.
The article also revealed that Weiming is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for allegedly skirting visa regulations that prevent students from studying at US public schools for more than 12 months, a claim Weiming and local officials denied.
Weiming’s plans for West Hartford were twofold. In addition to the long-term plan for an academy, the company in January signed a contract for a pilot program to start this fall and send 21 Chinese students to the high schools for two years. Each student would pay $13,000 in annual tuition. The status of that program is now unclear.
At the forum last week, attended by more than 300 residents, Superintendent Tom Moore vigorously defended the partnership, holding his hand to his heart as he told them the program would turn local students into global citizens. Moore did not respond to calls for comment Monday.
Tim Discipio, the head of Weiming’s US operations, also made a presentation week, using a laser pointer as he flipped through slides of smiling children and facts about the company. Discipio said Monday that the company respects the town’s decision.
The proposed terms of the town’s tentative deal with UConn include a clawback provision that requires West Hartford to remit 90 percent of any profit it makes on any future sale of the parcel to a third party before October 2024.
A UConn spokeswoman said Monday the deal will be good for the town and for UConn.
West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, who supported selling the land to Weiming because it would bring tax revenue, did not respond Monday to requests for comment, nor did Mayor Scott Slifka.
Town Councilor Christopher Williams, who opposed the partnership with Weiming, said he hopes all deals with the company are off.