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Editorial: Back on Track in Hartford?

Supporters of capital improvements for athletic facilities at Hartford High School are at it again, circulating a petition to get a $3.5 million bond issue on the November ballot. Their persistence is admirable, but it’s not clear that the defects that sank a similar proposal back in March have been remedied.

History is said to have a way of repeating itself, which is what we are about to do here. Those who are following this saga will recall that in 2013 voters approved $3.25 million as the school’s share of an $8.9 million joint town-school bond issue. The school’s money was allocated to pay for middle school renovations ($900,000); building a new field house ($1.55 million); and constructing a track and all-weather turf field ($800,000). As it turned out, the middle school renovations instead cost $1.5 million, and the estimate of costs to construct the track and turf field was not remotely accurate. That’s because no actual engineering or design work had been done; the estimated costs appeared to be little more than an amalgam of back-of-the-envelope calculations and wishful thinking.

That left the School Board with about $1.5 million left to build both the field house and the track and turf field. The board went back to the voters in March of this year seeking a $3 million supplemental bond to finish the job, an appeal that was overwhelmingly rejected.

Enter the petitioners, who have upped the ante to $3.5 million and need to attract the signatures of about 800 registered voters to succeed. Former Selectman F.X. Flinn, who is leading the effort, told staff writer Jordan Cuddemi last week that, “Hartford has to decide whether it wants to move forward and find ways to make it attractive to young families, or whether it just wants to take (its) chances on how the wind blows. I would rather try something.”

We suspect that Flinn is hardly alone in his desire to have the town move forward, but voters are entitled to know that the footing is solid before they continue down that particular road.

First and foremost, before signing up, they may want to assure themselves that the $3.5 million figure represents the outcome of qualified engineering and design work, rather than running the risk of suffering another ugly surprise. It’s not clear that this is the case. For instance, Flinn said that the $500,000 addition to the March proposal was intended to provide a “cushion” as well as permit the School Board to do further design work.

Secondly, the notion that new athletic facilities at the high school will motivate young families to move to town is attractive, but unproven so far as we know. One thing that pretty reliably does attract young families to a community is a high quality academic program in the schools. To put things in their proper perspective, voters may want to ask themselves whether they would spend $3.5 million on an initiative to boost the quality of instruction in the Hartford schools or to provide broader course offerings.

In any case, it seems to us that before asking people to sign the petition, supporters of these projects should demonstrate that the number in the bond proposal represents a realistic assessment of the true costs. If more engineering and design work is needed, then they should seek approval in November to spend only what’s needed to get that much done. In that way, voters could be asked subsequently for final approval, while having the means to make a wise decision.