My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Town, UMass at stalemate over elementary school payments

Hampshire Gazette article
By NICK GRABBEStaff Writer

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
AMHERST - The agreement to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School in 2010 has raised a thorny financial issue between Amherst and the University of Massachusetts. The question is: Who should pay the costs when the children of graduate students who live in UMass-owned, tax-exempt housing attend Amherst's public schools? There are 52 such children, and the total cost of educating them is estimated at $675,000 to $725,000 a year. Town officials have maintained for many years that UMass should pay some of these costs instead of taxpayers. UMass has countered that it provides the Mark's Meadow building at no cost to the Amherst public schools. Now that Mark's Meadow is going to close, some town officials say it's time for UMass to reimburse these costs, while campus officials say this is not a standard practice around the country.

The town-gown "strategic partnership agreement" signed in 2007 links the two issues. It says that Amherst "will continue to provide, as required by statute, educational services to all K- through 12-aged children residing in tax-exempt university housing." In the next sentence, it says that UMass will allow one of its buildings to be used as an elementary school. Then it says that if Mark's Meadow closes, all parties "will negotiate a new agreement in which the university may reimburse the town for a portion of the net costs of educating students living in university tax-exempt housing."

Town Manager Larry Shaffer said last week that UMass should start reimbursing the town for some of these costs when Mark's Meadow closes at the end of the 2009-2010 school year and not wait for the scheduled renewal of the agreement in 2012. The net costs would be less than $675,000 to $725,000 because a portion of those expenses already comes from state aid, he said.

"The town and the university are each other's best friends," Shaffer said. "We will have a conversation with them about this."

Amherst School Committee members Andrew Churchill and Irv Rhodes, along with Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk, had a conversation with UMass Chancellor Robert Holub May 19. They sought to learn whether UMass was willing to either help with the costs of educating the graduate students' children or to make the Mark's Meadow building available to the schools for other purposes.

"My sense was that he didn't know any other university where there's a precedent for taxing graduate students, as he put it," Churchill said. "His sense was if the town wants to get revenue from these students, it should build taxable housing. It sounds to me like the agreement would have to be revisited."

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said that because of budget cuts, "this is a crucial time for the university to step up." UMass benefits from having good public schools in Amherst to attract graduate student-parents, who in turn help the campus thrive by teaching courses and helping to bring in grant-funded research, she said.

"It is patently unfair for UMass to not let us use the Mark's Meadow building for another purpose and to refuse to pay us," she said. "I really hope the chancellor will decide to do the right thing and work out an alternative that benefits both the schools/town and the university." Top-quality public schools are "very, very hard to create, given the dismal fiscal realities we are facing," she said.

There is a lawsuit in New Jersey over whether Rutgers is required to pay to educate children who live in tax-free housing owned by the university, Sanderson said. "It suggests that UMass could face a lawsuit for refusing to assist with any aid," she said.

The economic and cultural benefits to Amherst and the Pioneer Valley from the presence of the university are substantial, said campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

"A 2006 study shows the economic impact of UMass Amherst on the Pioneer Valley at $1.2 billion annually," he said. "In Amherst itself, the economic impact of the university is conservatively estimated at more than $172 million each year."

Amherst benefits from private housing developments such as Puffton Village, where 80 percent of the residents are UMass students but most don't have children in the public schools, he said. Puffton Village pays more than $200,000 annually in property taxes, he said.

UMass will consider renovating the Mark's Meadow building and using it for School of Education programs, Blaguszewski said.

Rhodes, the other School Committee member who met with the chancellor, said he was impressed by Holub's arguments. He said the "squishy" language of the agreement does not obligate UMass to pay anything if Mark's Meadow closes.

"I find it hard to support the position that we're going to tax kids from subsidized housing," he said. He added that after he read the text of the agreement, he concluded that "this thing doesn't hold water."

Shaffer admitted that UMass is also under financial pressure, adding that he doesn't expect any quick agreement.

"The university is not immune to budget shock," he said. "It would be foolish to think their budget issues wouldn't cast a shadow over their abilities in this arena."

Blaguszewski said, "There are no easy choices, as we move ahead to eliminate $10 million from next year's budget."


Anonymous said...

...hmmm..."patently unfair".... You should talk about unfairness. And closing Marks Meadow has now become a 'fair' issue? UMass not stepping in to cover the shortfall in the schools' budget by paying for its graduate students' children to be taught here is just the beginning of the misfortunate goings on that are sure to continue as an aftermath of this decision.

Anonymous said...

Rhodes, the other School Committee member who met with the chancellor, said he was impressed by Holub's arguments. He said the "squishy" language of the agreement does not obligate UMass to pay anything if Mark's Meadow closes.

Who negotiated the agreement?

Is it binding on the issue of whether Amherst taxpayers collectively finance the UMass grad students childrens' educations?

Anonymous said...

Wel, geez, we collectively finance all public education.

Is section 8 housing tax exempt? Is Amherst Housing Authority housing tax exempt? Amherst College and Hampshire College are both educational institutions and, as such, their properties are tax exempt.

I haven't seen that CS has responded to the question regarding taxes on the houses that AC owns used by faculty with children.

LarryK4 said...

Amherst College is the largest owner of tax exempt land in Amherst and also the largest single taxpayer on land that is on the taxrolls (the Lord Jeff and Amherst Golf Course as well as the houses they rent/lease to Professors)