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Editorial: About That Supplemental Bond in Hartford

After Hartford voters rejected a $3 million supplemental bond issue for capital improvements at the high school, School Board Chairman Kevin Christie suggested that the proposal had been doomed by the opposition of one of his colleagues on the board.

“We weren’t speaking with a common voice,” Christie told staff writer Jordan Cuddemi on Tuesday. “One board member went rogue, and it clouded the issue.”

Jeff Arnold, who did not seek re-election to the board last week, was indeed a vocal opponent of the bond issue and the lone board member to oppose putting it on the ballot. So perhaps he makes a convenient scapegoat if you believe — as we most definitely do not — that members of public bodies ought to present a united front even in the face of fundamental disagreement. To the contrary, officials do a disservice to the constituents they represent when they bury important differences over policy to make a show of unity.

In any case, it seems far more likely to us that several other factors consigned the bond issue to failure. The most glaring is the original failure of the School Board to adequately vet the athletic projects at the high school that the supplemental bond would have been used to complete — construction of a track and all-weather turf field, and building a new field house.

You may recall that last year, voters approved, as part of a larger joint town and school bond issue, an estimated $800,000 for the track and turf field, and $1,550,000 for the field house. Only later did they learn that the amount set aside for the track and turf field was radically insufficient, because it did not account for site work that the installation of the turf field would require — work that eventually was pegged at $1.7 million by itself.

As it turned out, no qualified engineering work or site reviews had been done on the track and turf field project before the 2013 bond vote. This inexplicable lapse led board member Peter Merrill to issue an apology at this year’s pre-Town Meeting information session for the board’s failure to do due diligence.

Faced with this set of facts, voters could well have concluded that passing the supplemental bond would signify approval of the flawed process that brought the original inadequate amount before them and that public officials should not be rewarded for such errors.

Or they could have suspected that the amount of the original bond was deliberately low-balled in the expectation that voters would feel invested enough to provide supplemental funds subsequently. While we don’t subscribe to that notion, that’s the type of deep skepticism such debacles elicit.

A third possibility is that what seemed a reasonable expense at $2.4 million appeared far less defensible when the projected price tag rose to $5.4 million. Voters may well have believed that that level of spending reflected too high a priority for athletics as compared with academic needs. Indeed, several residents interviewed by Cuddemi after they voted expressed that view. “I am all for athletics, don’t get me wrong,” said Paulagay Adams of White River Junction, “but academics need to come first.”

And indeed, in typical civic-minded fashion, Hartford voters overwhelmingly approved a $3.6 million bond to make building improvements at the White River School even as they were turning down the supplemental bond for the track and turf field and the field house.

Christie told Cuddemi that in light of the defeat, the board is likely to move ahead with building the field house with the $1.5 million remaining on the original bond. This is an interesting development given that Merrill declined to say at the information session what would be done with the remaining money if the supplemental bond were defeated, saying it was neither the time nor the place to discuss it. If there was even an informal consensus that the field house would go forward regardless, then the public had a right to a direct answer.

Additionally, the whole project was originally presented primarily as one that sought to remedy a long-standing deficiency at the school — the lack of a track. The board needs to explain in detail why the remaining money would not be used for that purpose given how things transpired. In any event, the School Board gave voters plenty of reason to oppose the bond without any help from a dissenting member.