, Salem, MA

March 26, 2009

Town-seminary debate heats up

Studies disagree over what Gordon-Conwell contributes to school district

By Steve Landwehr

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.

As a religious educational institution, Gordon-Conwell is constitutionally protected from taxation, but Killoran said separation of church and state is a sword that cuts both ways.

Because the education of the seminary's students is being underwritten by the taxpayers of Hamilton, she said, public dollars are supporting a religious institution and its mission.

"We're not supposed to do that," she said.

In the eyes of some residents, relationships between the town and the school have gone from simmer to boil a number of times since the seminary first built housing for its married students in 1975. Although arguments have been made about other costs relating to the seminary, the central argument has always been over its schoolchildren.

The discussions often leave school officials in an uncomfortable position. Enough is Enough, a local anti-tax-increase group, and others have pressured them to put an actual cost on the education of the seminary students. But school officials have resolutely maintained they are legally and morally prevented from singling out individual groups of children and must educate all the town's children without regard for economic or social standing.

"The taxpayers of Hamilton take a definitively different point of view," Killoran said. "We're the ones footing the bill."

How much is enough?

Hamilton Selectman David Carey has been part of a committee negotiating with the seminary for more than a year. He acknowledges there is a cost associated with the additional seminary students, but determining what it is can be difficult.

And whatever it is, he said, people should balance it against four things the school demonstrably contributes to the community:

The diversity its students and their children bring to an otherwise largely homogenous community;

The culture of academia that many other small towns lack;

The jobs it provides by hiring local people;

And the 126 acres of open space the school protects by its very presence.

Carey said he anticipates negotiations with the school will resume in the coming weeks. School officials clearly said their $84,000 gift last year was a one-time event that would be revisited annually. And like everyone else, the school is suffering from the downturn in the economy.

The selectman posed a question that is at the very core of the ongoing debate. In the usual course of events, the cost of municipal governance would be spread across all residents by some formula, he said, but when nonprofit institutions are part of the mix, how are their offsetting contributions to be weighed?

"Since the ordinary model doesn't apply," Carey asked, "what does?"

Highlights from the studies

Seminary benefits to the community

$3 million a year in faculty and staff salaries for Hamilton residents

$221,888 worth of goods and services purchased annually from 26 Hamilton vendors

$2.8 million worth of goods and services purchased annually by master's degree students

Seminary costs to the community

Additional teachers to educate seminarians' children, estimated at 0.74 to 3.77 per year

$300,000, estimated funding gap created by 40 students each year

$3.9 million, cumulative budget impact between 2009 and 2018

Sources: Grades K-12 School Enrollment Forecast, Hamilton-Wenham Schools, Sept. 15, 2008; "Contributing to Our Local Economy: An Economic Impact Study by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary"