By NICK GRABBE
Monday, June 15, 2009 - Hampshire Gazette
AMHERST - The knotty financial relationship between the University of Massachusetts and the town of Amherst has reached a new level of entanglement as both seek scarce state dollars.
State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has questioned Amherst's attempt to get money from UMass for services the town provides. And Town Manager Larry Shaffer said he wants to revisit a town-gown agreement three years before it's due to expire and explore a range of topics of mutual interest.
The trigger for the current debate was the Amherst School Committee's decision May 19 to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School, a property UMass owns, a year from now. In return for ceding the building to campus use, Amherst officials would like UMass to reimburse part of the cost of educating about 50 children of graduate students who live in tax-exempt housing.
The two issues are linked in the town-gown agreement, but it says only that UMass "may" reimburse the town for a portion of those costs if Mark's Meadow closes. Shaffer said he wants to negotiate some reimbursement from UMass next year.
"It's a matter of principle and an equity issue," he said. "It's logical and fair for the state to compensate taxpayers for its expenses tied to students."
School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said the closure of Mark's Meadow represents a change in the status quo between UMass and the town and some balancing of accounts is warranted.
"I'm puzzled as to why it seems fair for the school district to take a loss in terms of the building and not gain money, and for UMass to benefit from the additional space and not pay anything," she said.
But from Rosenberg's viewpoint, Amherst should count its blessings as all cities and towns in Massachusetts cope with a decline in state aid. The state already pays, indirectly, for the education of those 50 children, he said.
Amherst gets a high level of state money because UMass students count in the population figures used to calculate local aid, Rosenberg said. The students skew downward the town's per capita income, which helps draw in state aid, he said.
Students living on campus were removed from the state's calculation of Amherst's population in the 1980s, but then reinserted, he said.
"They can by amendment be removed," Rosenberg said. "There's no plan to do that; it's #out of sight, out of mind.' I don't think there is a risk, but you never know. In this business, you let sleeping dogs lie."
Some mayors and municipal leaders from struggling communities ask why Amherst's state aid is as high as it is, Rosenberg said.
"If the students were removed from the formula, we'd see a drop in local aid that would be significantly higher than the cost of educating those children," he said.
That cost is estimated at $700,000 a year, but Amherst is seeking a lower amount because some of the revenue that pays those expenses already comes from the state. Amherst is getting about $17 million from the state this year, funding 23 percent of its budget.
It isn't any easier for UMass to put cash on the table than the town, Rosenberg said. And campus officials have estimated the economic impact of UMass on Amherst at $172 million a year.
"This is a very difficult moment for everybody," Rosenberg said. "The major employer in the region is under the most extraordinary fiscal stress they've been under in decades. I think we have to be conscious of that and not be overly ambitious about what can be done."
But Sanderson said UMass will feel the hurt if budget cuts diminish the appeal of living in Amherst to prospective faculty members and graduate students.
"The university benefits from having a top-quality educational institution here," she said. "People being recruited by colleges always ask how the public schools are."
Shaffer said that when he was town administrator in Durham, N.H., in the 1990s, he worked on an agreement with the University of New Hampshire that produced a contract providing the host community with reimbursement of the net costs of educating children of graduate students living in tax-exempt housing.
Amherst is expecting to absorb a 22 percent cut in state aid next year. Meanwhile, it had to pay $76,000 in weekend overtime to police officers keeping order at off-campus parties this spring, he said.
The town's annual police budget is about $4 million. If the student residents were single-family homeowners, Amherst would not need such a large police force, Shaffer said.
He said he "respectfully disagrees" with Rosenberg's position on students counting in the state aid formula, and called the questioning of Amherst's aid level by other cities and towns "completely outrageous."
"This suggests that we are two communities, that somehow the university is an impenetrable fortress that has no influence on our town," he said. "The university enjoys a tax exemption and enjoys the benefit of having these students educated in our schools. It's eminently fair to have this conversation."
Shaffer said he also wants to talk with UMass about the reconstruction of North Pleasant Street, a town road that runs through the campus, and the new power plant, while campus officials may want to talk about water and sewer rates.
There are many economic and cultural benefits to the town from hosting the state university, and the aid formula is one of them, said UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. He said campus officials have received no official request to revisit the town-gown agreement.
"We think it's important to have a vibrant and beneficial partnership with the community, and are open to discussions of the best way to work together and achieve joint goals," he said.
Nick Grabbe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.