There has been a lot of debate -- in the newspapers, on my blog, and certainly elsewhere -- on what the role of the colleges/universities should be in contributing to the local schools. As I've noted, Amherst College has always allowed some number (I believe it was 30) high school students to take classes for free -- and this year, this cap has been eliminated so that all high school students who want to (and are qualified to) take classes at Amherst College can. U Mass, in contrast, charges high school students $1200 per class. I also was pleased to learn that Amherst College provided a campus space (Buckley Auditorium) at no cost for the recent (and truly excellent) high school wind ensemble concert. In contrast, the school district pays $13,000 to use the Mullins Center for high school graduation.
This debate is going to intensify next year as the school district stops using the Marks Meadow space owned by U Mass as an elementary school -- and the question then becomes whether U Mass will allow the district to use this space for other purposes (such as consolidating the alternative high schools in this space, or using this space for district offices to allow the 6th grade to move to the middle school), or whether U Mass will compensate the district for the 52 students who attend our public schools and live in tax-free U Mass housing. As I've said repeatedly, I believe it is strongly in U Mass and the colleges' interest for our public schools to be strong -- it is one of the first questions potential faculty and staff ask when considering a job. We've seen examples of how Amherst College is stepping up (reducing the cap on high school students taking free classes, assisting with the Pipeline program, providing auditorium space at no cost). And after the district stops using the Marks Meadow building as an elementary school, I very much hope that U Mass will step up next year and compensate the district in some way (space, money, and/or services) for the cost of educating the 52 children living in tax-exempt housing who we educate in our schools.
Along these same lines of the town-gown relationships, an anonymous poster asked for information on how Williams College contributes to the local schools, so I'm posting an article from the Bulletin last January that addresses this issue.
Should Amherst College match Williams on town aid?
BY Nick Grabbe
Amherst Bulletin, January 18, 2008
Evelyn Sullivan thinks Amherst College, with its $1.66 billion endowment, could do more to ease the town's chronic budget shortfall. And in making her case, she pokes the college in a sensitive spot.
Sullivan moved to Amherst in 2001 after teaching in the Williamstown elementary school for 25 years. Williams College has made major financial commitments to Williamstown that deserve to be emulated, she said.
"Since Amherst and Williams are athletic rivals, why can't their rivalry extend off the playing fields?" she asked in a letter to the Amherst Bulletin. "The challenge for each college would be to rival each other in supporting their schools and town."
Others warn that tapping in to a rivalry is no way to strengthen an institution's connection to its hometown.
To call the two colleges "athletic rivals" is to underplay the intensity when their teams face each other. And as two of the top small liberal arts colleges in the country, Amherst and Williams also compete for students and faculty.
But in the arena of assisting their host communities financially, Williams College seems to be ahead, according to information supplied by officials at the two campuses.
Williams College has committed $1.5 million to the construction of a new elementary school and an endowment for the building, $777,000 toward a $3.5 million renovation of Williamstown's main street, and $4 million to a group that seeks to improve the number and quality of jobs in Berkshire County.
"The health of the college and of the community are entwined," said Williams spokesman James Kolesar. "Current and future Williams students will benefit from the existence of strong local institutions. And, like all citizens, the college has responsibilities to contribute to our community's well-being."
Amherst College already makes contributions to Amherst and negotiations are under way to increase them. President Tony Marx has advocated closer ties between campus and community.
"Amherst College is 100 percent committed to the local community and school system, and we are always looking for meaningful ways to support both," he said this week. "While we already contribute a great deal to the town and schools -- in terms of funding as well as the time and energy of our students, faculty and staff -- we are constantly assessing and discussing how we may do more."
Last September, at a community luncheon, Marx said the town's recurring budget deficits are putting the public school system at risk.
"Every year I hear the public school administrators saying that the school is now cutting into bone, and that's scary as a parent to hear and it's scary as a business leader to hear because I have to attract people to live here," Marx said at the time.
Marx said he plans to meet next week with Town Manager Larry Shaffer to "explore other opportunities for cooperation and support."
Shaffer said he would like to see Amherst College reimburse the town at least for the cost of providing the campus with fire protection, a deal he has negotiated with the University of Massachusetts. Shaffer said he would be "delighted" if the Amherst-Williams rivalry motivated the college to do more.
"But it isn't only about leveraging as much money as possible," Shaffer said. "It's about establishing a relationship that asks Amherst College to think about the town in its future plans. 'Give us money' isn't the responsible way to approach Amherst College. Better is 'This is the impact on the town, and we believe it's appropriate as a matter of equity for you to assist us.'"
Calculating the value of a college's contributions to its community is not easy. Comparing it to another's is especially tricky.
Williams College is a much bigger part of Williamstown than Amherst College is of Amherst. There is no state university in Williamstown, a town of 8,000 residents (a quarter of them Williams students) compared to Amherst's 35,000 population (including students). And Williams' $1.9 billion endowment is higher than Amherst College's.
Although tax exempt on land and buildings used for educational purposes, Williams and Amherst colleges are the largest taxpayers in their respective towns for other properties they own, just as Smith College pays the most taxes in Northampton ($476,274 in the last fiscal year). Colleges are steady employers, stabilizing their regions' economies and are major sources of spending for local businesses. Smith estimates that it spends $12 million a year in the community and students and visitors spend $3.5 million more.
In addition, there are cultural advantages to having a campus in town. Residents can attend lectures, concerts and plays, they can use athletic facilities if accompanied by a college employee and can even audit courses. Colleges also make donations to hospitals and United Way campaigns.
Williamstown has a higher average property value than Amherst ($385,515 vs. $330,926), but it has a lower average tax bill ($4,426 vs. $5,189).
Amherst College has unmet responsibilities to its host community and should make a substantial payment to the town, said Mary Wentworth, a Town Meeting member who has maintained that the college should use its wealth to do more. It owns 1,000 acres in town, and the land and the buildings on them are tax-exempt, she said.
"One of the things Amherst has done for Amherst College over the years is to maintain a bucolic atmosphere," Wentworth said. "It's a small town, it's safe and very pleasant, and parents coming here to visit can see what a nice place it is. They see their kids wouldn't be in danger and would get an excellent education."
Elaine Brighty has seen both sides as a longtime School Committee member, former Amherst College employee and faculty spouse. She said talking publicly about the Williams-Amherst rivalry isn't the way to go about conversations with the college.
"Everyone says we'd like more money, and we have to wait and see how it works out," she said. "Amherst College isn't going to save the schools or the town. Amherst as a town has to save itself, working with the colleges."
The rivalry is not relevant or constructive to town-gown cooperation, said Peter Fohlin, town manager in Williamstown.
"There is no limit to what the college can do for the town, and no limit to what the town can do for the college to make this a better place to live for everyone," he said.
State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has for many years sought higher state payments to the town to reimburse the costs of hosting the University of Massachusetts.
"These institutions have a series of impacts in the community, providing jobs and economic activity and supporting small business, but all those benefits accrue to individuals and businesses," he said.
"On other side of the ledger, there are impacts that must be addressed by government. The challenge is to find the proper balance so you recognize and celebrate and don't compromise the contributions by institutions, and at the same time find ways for the institutions to be good neighbors and help mitigate the impact they have on the public budgets."
Amherst needs to engage in a symbiotic relationship with Amherst College that benefits both, Shaffer said.
"Amherst College is a very strong institution, and that allows it a degree of independence other entities don't have," he said. "We need to appeal to them based on how our mutual best interests will be served.
A large endowment means you don't need many friends, Shaffer said. "In this world, if you have needs and don't have resources, you need to develop relationships," he said.
"We can make this town a much better place if we work together creatively."
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.