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.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tight times test Amherst, UMass pact

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.

Population factor

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 ngrabbe@gazettenet.com.

17 comments:

Fed Up Parent said...

Amherst gets "extra" Chapter 70 aid not because the students living at UMass exist but because they are low income. And many of these blog postings here list the many problems with trying to educate a large number of low income children. Also factored in should be the fact that many of the children coming from UMass don't speak English! How many language tutors does our school system need to pay for each year ONLY because children living at UMass speak those languages? I am specifically talking about some of the one-of-a-kind language support that these students need short term and then they return to their native countries. When our professors go on sabbatical to a foreign country, their children rarely, if ever, receive special tutors in English in those countries. How many different elementary schools are the North Village kids being separately bussed to every day because of their various language needs? How much does that cost us?

If the state decides not to count the UMass population into Amherst's population in retaliation for Amherst "not letting sleeping dogs lie" as Rosenberg cowardly suggests, great. Then we will no longer be obliged to provide fire, police, or school services to that entire part of town.

Anonymous said...

It comes down to this:

Just how badly do the administrations and trustees of the Colleges and the University want to have great public schools in the region where the vast majority of their employees reside?

It's fish or cut bait time.

My guess is that the cutting into bone and muscle must begin and begin visibly before the reality sets in. You don't know what you've got until after it's gone.

I suspect most residents haven't noticed a difference up to now.

La dee dah, la dee dah.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to me that OUR state representative Stan Rosenberg, who is generally pretty well regarded, argues why the town of Amherst cannot get blood from a stone. Why does he choose to stand between the town and the University or did the newspaper reporter frame it that way?

Anonymous said...

I too was taken aback by Mr Rosenberg's comments as reported in the Gazette. However, I have always wondered whether he really represents Amherst or just UMass.

Anonymous said...

Stan Rosenberg represents Stan Rosenberg!

Abbie said...

To anon1224 and 150,

have you considered the possibility that he is CORRECT and telling the truth?

If you have information demonstrating his errors, please share them...

Do your own research. Compare the amount of state aid Amherst gets (with its student population) with a town of comparable size to Amherst (without the student numbers but with its *real* per capita income). This would be very informative!

Reality Check People!!! said...

"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."

This school district CHOSE to take the loss of the building. The school committee CHOSE this BEFORE any negotiations happened between the town and UMASS. That IS ON US!!! It is not up to UMASS to come to us and say,"Oh yes, you gave us our building back, so sure, here you go $15,000 per kid(or pick a #)!!" Seriously, why would ANYONE think UMASS would willingly give the town ANYTHING? They have NOTHING to lose.

When the vote to close Mark's Meadow was made back on May 19th, it was a gift to UMASS with NO STRINGS ATTACHED!!! That is the reality. Nothing anyone can say at this point will change that.

It was a mistake to take the vote then and this is now one of the MANY consequences we will have to face.

(Not to mention building a NEW school in 5-10 years and bumping everyone's taxes up again!!!!!)

Think people. Sometimes college degrees get people NO WHERE!!!!
Sometimes all you need is some simple common sense!!!

Abbie said...

To unreality check:

We were never in a position to negotiate with UMass. What would our position have been: we will keep MM open at GREAT cost to the town UNLESS you give us money. If UMass says no (and why wouldn't they?), you would have us continue to pay nearly $700k/year when those MM students could be accommodated at the other schools.

I don't think much of your "common sense" and very much doubt it is common in Amherst.

Anonymous said...

UMass is a public institution of higher education, paid for with our tax dollars. It is not a profit-making enterprise. Rather, just like our public elementary and secondary schools, it helps create a public good -- an educated populace -- from which we all benefit. Locally, we benefit even more from the presence of some 20,000 additional residents in myriad forms, not the least of which are the 5,000 jobs and the consumer revenue from all those residents.

When you talk about taking money from UMass to pay for our local schools, it's as if you think you can better pay for your groceries by transferring cash from your left pocket to your right. Take money from public higher ed to fund public elementary ed? All you're doing is shifting pieces in an ever-diminishing pie. You're not increasing the pie at all.

Moreover, you're making the state budget situation even more confusing and indirect. You're asking the legislature to allocate money to UMass to fund Amherst's local schools. I'd rather ask the legislature to fund local schools (i.e., increase local aid) directly, thanks very much. Makes a lot more sense.

This entire debate is pure distraction from the larger issues of what happens to public education during economic downturns. Please, stop the madness. Get back to working on real solutions to this very real problems, instead of trying to find some new place to shift the blame.

Anonymous said...

Abbie,
No where did it say anything about not closing MM. It said to negotiate something BEFORE the vote was made. We have zero leverage now. We gave up the little that we had when we took the vote early. So I guess I understand your point, but we had some piece of a bargaining chip before but we have nothing now. There is a difference. You may be reading into what was written different than I did (and no I did not wrote the original post), but I have to agree with "reality check" There was no long term thought process to how things would play out with UMASS. Yes, as it looks now, closing MM saves us a good chunk of money, but the vote had been made and we don't seem to be able to undo that now. We gave up the building and are now asking the University to give us money, when really that would just mean more of our State tax dollars would be coming back to the town, which we already pay. Amherst does get more money than other towns because of the University already. I don;t see anyway we will be able to get more from them. Services, maybe, hopefully!!! Money, there is none.

Anonymous said...

Also, It just could have been phrased differently. Something like, we know you need more space and have limited building budgets. If we agree to give you back MM, would you be able to help financially to the public schools? That doesn't work, you could then say, would you be able to help with services, discounts, etc instead? But we gave that one piece away with that vote. They really don't have to offer us anything anymore. Sorry, but that is the case. It might not be the right thing for UMass to do, but what is to stop them?

Anonymous said...

Actually, leave the University out of it:
asking the state legislature to fund local schools directly is yet another form of moving the money from your left pocket to your right.

Except to make the metaphor exact, you drop some money on the ground on the way from your left pocket to your right, just to represent what state bureaucracy takes out of the transfer.

I agree: there's something unseemly about a fairly wealthy community looking to get bailed out from somewhere else, to cover the bills it has the wealth within its borders to pay, far more so than poorer communities like Holyoke and Lawrence do.

Amherst does sound like the sobbing of the Poor Little Rich Boy in these situations (the Poor Little Rich Boy in the recession-cushioned municipal economy that sells valuable educational credentials to a steady stream of young Americans with lots of disposable income).

I still don't think that enough residents have grasped and then embraced the reality of crisis in our fiscal affairs. Beyond the condition of the roads, the fiscal condition of the Town and the Schools simply doesn't touch them in any meaningful daily way.

So when Brian Morton gets up in front of Town Meeting and quotes Tom Paine's "these are the times that try men's souls", it still sounds like "inside baseball" to most residents, or, perhaps worse, more Chicken-Little crisis-mongering.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Fed Up Parent - it is certainly clear that U Mass costs the schools a lot ... and I think it is appropriate for us to expect U Mass to want to contribute to the schools. I appreciate that for a long time, they've allowed us to use the MM building. And now that we aren't going to be using that building as an elementary school anymore, I hope they continue to support us either by providing money or by providing space. I don't see why they should benefit (e.g., get the MM building back at no cost to them at all) because the schools are in a fiscal crisis!

Anonymous 12:14 - as I am quoted saying in the article, it is good for U Mass to tell prospective faculty/staff/students that the public schools are good. That means having adequate resources (money and space).

Anonymous 12:24 and Anonymous 1:50 - I too was puzzled by his comments ... and surprised to not see him at least encouraging U Mass to talk with the schools about creative win/win arrangements.

Abbie - I assume he is telling the truth ... what I don't understand is why U Mass won't allow the schools to use the space. That would seem EXACTLY the same as the current situation (e.g., they don't pay anything, we get the space). And that space WOULD help the schools and the town.

Reality Check People - I have heard this point before, as you might imagine. And I still don't understand how not voting to close MM is a big point of leverage. What's our strategy? Tell U Mass "we are going to continue to spend $700,000 we don't have and ruin the education in all the schools if you don't give us some money or let us use the space?" I think they are smart enough to see that this is not a great strategy. I also heard that they did NOT want to be in the position of appearing to "get us to close MM," meaning they would have looked bad to some MM supporters if the deal had been "hey, if you all get out of MM we'll give you X." So, the advice I heard from multiple town/school administrators was get the vote done -- then you have a year to negotiate with U Mass. The pressure for them to help us out should come from their desire to have the schools stay strong, and to contribute to the community. And again, I hope they are willing to step forward in some way.

Abbie - exactly ... I still don't understand was this strategy would be seen as convincing to U Mass!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:38 - let me be clear ... the schools would RATHER have the space than the money. As the interim superintendent said repeatedly, she would much prefer to have U Mass pay nothing and to continue to use the space. This situation is the SAME situation as what we have now -- it doesn't cost U Mass anything and the schools gain. This isn't about trying to get U Mass to do MORE ... it is about trying to get U Mass to do the SAME.

Anonymous 11:05 - I think Abbie's point, which I agree with, is that our negotiating strategy to convince U Mass to give us money before the vote is pretty weak (and highly likely to be ineffective). But I agree that services or space would be fine -- we don't need money! The preference from the schools anyway would be to USE the MM space -- not to get money.

Anonymous 11:09 - that conversation did happen prior to the vote. And U Mass basically said "no." So, then what were we supposed to do? Increase class sizes and cut instrumental music to keep MM open? Again, I don't see how the timing of the vote matters ... U Mass said they wouldn't give us anything before the vote -- and after the vote! But we still have a year now in which they will hopefully decide to let us have the space OR let us have some services OR give us some money.

Anonymous 11:10 - I'm not really sure how to respond to all this ... but I agree that many residents don't understand the fiscal reality of where we are ... and I will say again that the schools are NOT asking U Mass for money or to do MORE ... they are asking U Mass to continue doing what they have been doing, which is to let us use the MM space. And I hope they agree.

Anonymous said...

Tonight's Town Meeting was a classic example of what's wrong with Town Meeting: hours talking about the order of topics to talk about.

The only difference with the Paris Peace Talks is there's no table to argue about.

Anonymous said...

If you are not asking for money which you repeated over and over in your responses, then why do you continue to ASK for money from UMASS? That has been in print all over the place. Is that a negotiating point? I just don't get it. We gave up an asset. We gave it to them on a silver platter. They have no real reason to help us with anything. As far as UMASS is concerned this is great to them. They can now consolidate their departments instead of people driving across campus to get to each other. This works out beautifully for them!!!

As far as it looks, all we get from UMASS is services. Probably not much more than that. Especially seeing as what that other college did that you had published the article about. They received services, or a dollar amount (not much either) to be used in various ways. Sounds like something UMASS would do with us.

Again, as far as they are concerned, they NEED that space and the town just handed it over!!!

LarryK4 said...

Okay fine you Nitwit.

Then let the FAT cat bureaucrates at Umass (ever check how many of them make over 100-K annually?) pay for their own Fire Department (currently sucking at the teat of Amherst taxpayers for over $1 million per year).

And let's not even talk about the Campus Center Hotel being the only facilty in the Valley refusing to pay the local hotel/motel tax--currently at 4% but probably going up soon (thus reducing revenue to Amherst by $70 TO $100-k)

Or the Amherst PD this past year dealing with students at $75-K in labor costs.

The $600-K to $750-K in education costs for Grad Students kids living in tax exempt housing (not to mention the Chancellor sending his two kids to our schools) is but a drop in the bucket.