SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 11, 2013

Seminary agrees to meet with town

Gordon-Conwell, selectmen to talk about the costs of educating students' children

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — HAMILTON — Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary will meet with selectmen to discuss the costs associated with educating the children of seminary students in the public schools.

This has been a long-standing issue, with some residents and officials claiming that it is a burden to the school system. The discussion was rekindled in February when selectmen decided to approach the seminary to talk about how much the school pays to the town each year in lieu of taxes.

The seminary, which is a nonprofit, has no obligation to pay property taxes but has made donations to the town of $100,000 a year for the past four years. The $100,000 came out of previous discussions between the town and seminary.

Seminary President Dennis Hollinger sent an email to selectmen last month expressing his willingness to meet with the board, but “with an understanding that this is not a negotiation, but an opportunity for us to explain our situation and position.”

The letter indicated that the seminary’s legal counsel would be at the meeting.

“I am a little concerned that they feel they are going to be telling us their position, but they need to have legal counsel there,” Selectman Jennifer Scuteri said during Monday’s selectmen’s meeting. “Do we need to have legal counsel?”

Town Manager Michael Lombardo said he didn’t think town counsel would be necessary if selectmen were attending the meeting to hear the seminary’s position.

In the end, the board decided to have only Scuteri and Selectman Jeff Hubbard meet with the school officials, so that they can meet behind closed doors without violating the Open Meeting Law, as requested by the seminary. The two members will then report back to the entire board in public session.

Hubbard said it is important for the town and school to work together on a solution so that there’s less of burden to the school system.

“They are asking us to go and listen,” Hubbard said. “We are going to go and listen.”

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.

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.

Several grass-roots citizen groups, including Enough is Enough, have formed over the years urging the seminary to pay more for its students.

Selectman David Neill agreed he’d like to see the matter settled.

“I would like to resolve this issue so everyone on both sides is satisfied,” Neill said during an interview. “That is my goal.”

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.