SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

March 26, 2009

Town-seminary debate heats up

Studies disagree over what Gordon-Conwell contributes to school district

HAMILTON — A feud over whether a local religious seminary should pay for students' children to attend public schools has evolved into a numbers war.

On one side, a study commissioned last year by the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee calculated that each of the seminary's students costs the school district about $8,000. Last year, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary paid the town $2,000 for each if its 42 schoolchildren.

The seminary also hired a consultant to determine the economic impact of its students, faculty and visitors every year. It valued that impact at $8 million in Hamilton alone and $33 million across Essex County.

But beneath those arguments and counterarguments are philosophical questions that don't easily fit into formulas. What value does society place on the contributions that churches, schools, hospitals and other nonprofits make to the common good? And can we or should we even try to put a price on them?

The Rev. Dorington Little has been pastor at the First Congregational Church on Bay Road in Hamilton for about 12 years. During that time, about two dozen seminarians have volunteered their time to an assortment of youth and adult ministries at the church, he said, "contributing and enhancing across the community." That, he says, has a direct, if immeasurable, benefit for the town.

"We do have people who say the reason they moved to Hamilton is because the church ministers to the whole family," Little said. "So the church can be a draw for the community, and the fact we have those students does help the community."

Hamilton resident Margo Killoran doesn't disagree with that point of view but does think the seminary is not living up to its mission locally.

"The seminary sends students to minister all over the world but doesn't do the same thing in the community where their mission is fostered," Killoran said.

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