By Jonathan Phelps
---- — HAMILTON — Selectmen are about to reopen a long-simmering issue in town, by asking Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to pay more to cover the cost of educating students’ children in the public schools.
This issue has been a heated debate in town for many years, with some residents claiming that it has been a burden to the school system. Last week, selectmen decided to approach the seminary and try to reopen discussions about how much the college pays to the town each year in lieu of taxes.
“I think it is important to open up the dialogue with them again; there are some new people there,” said Selectman Jeff Hubbard, who initiated the discussion at a selectmen’s meeting last week. “We can’t afford to ignore this any longer.”
The children of seminary students who live on campus have attended the Hamilton-Wenham schools since the seminary built married student housing in 1975. There was an informal agreement back then that the seminary would pay out-of-district tuition costs for the children attending public schools, but the seminary does not pay that full amount.
Some claim the agreement was set in stone, while others say that then-President Lloyd Kalland did not have the authority to make such a promise.
Because the student housing is on the property of an educational nonprofit, neither the seminary nor its students are obligated to pay any taxes to the town.
Michael Colaneri, director of communications and marketing at the seminary, said the school has made $100,000 contributions annually for the past four years.
“As a nonprofit institution in the community, we are genuinely interested in assisting the town to the extent that our budget permits,” Colaneri said. “This has truly been a gift from the entire seminary community, as we have been unable to grant raises to our staff (administration, faculty and staff) during the same period of time.”
Town Manager Michael Lombardo confirmed the $100,000-a-year gifts and said the money is put into the town’s general fund.
The town and seminary do not have a formal payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement. Before the $100,000 checks, the school would typically pay about $35,000 a year.
The per-student cost to operate the district is an average of $14,600, according to selectmen.
Hubbard said it costs the town at least $8,000 per child to educate the seminary students’ children each year. Through school choice, the town brings in $5,000 for each out-of-district student.
With 40 to 50 students attending the schools, the $100,000 gift from the seminary amounts to about $2,000 to $2,500 per student.
Selectman Jennifer Scuteri agreed with Hubbard’s call to reopen the dialogue with the seminary.
“There is an unusual cost that most tax-exempts don’t cause a community,” Scuteri said. “So it does require an unusual conversation. ... It doesn’t mean we don’t recognize them as contributors to our community.”
Several grass-roots citizen groups, including Enough is Enough, have formed over the years urging the seminary to pay more for its students.
In the end, the board decided to have Chairman David Neill approach the seminary about trying to come up with a deal.
“I am hoping we can come up with some sort of arrangement that will satisfy the town and the seminary,” Neill said in an interview. “There’s got to be a fair number.”
Neill said he typically doesn’t support the idea of payments in lieu of taxes, but he agreed that this ongoing issue is an unusual hit to the school system.
“The point is not to badger or shame. That won’t get us anywhere,” Neill said. “But the fact of the matter is we have an issue to address.”
Neill acknowledged that the school has no legal obligation to the town.
“I think they do accept a moral responsibility,” he said.
The seminary contributes to the community in many ways, including bringing people from all over the world who normally wouldn’t be here, Neill said.
“The matter of fact is that the seminary is giving what they can,” Neill said. “There are some people who think the school should pay what we tell them they should, when they can’t.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.