UMass-town deal delay complicates Amherst school budgeting

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, November 29, 2019

AMHERST — With uncertainty surrounding when the Strategic Partnership between Amherst and the University of Massachusetts will be renewed, School Committee members are cautioning officials from developing fiscal year 2021 budgets that use additional contributions from the institution.

Superintendent Michael Morris told the committee Monday that not knowing if a new agreement is imminent is creating challenges for putting together a budget, adding that if negotiations are finalized that could lead to a “pretty big swing” in the amount of funding available.

There is hope that any new town-gown agreement will include more money for educating children who live in tax-exempt housing owned by the university. In a study mandated by the Strategic Partnership, the UMass Donahue Institute in 2018 examined that financial impact, mostly from children living at North Village Apartments.

The report concluded that even if all tax-exempt apartments were fully taxed, that would not cover the per-pupil costs of their education. Yet the report still suggested possible scenarios for how the town and university could look at fair compensation, from the low of $1,237 cost per pupil if North Village paid property taxes, to a high of $14,986, the average cost per pupil when English Language Learner instruction is factored in.

The Strategic Partnership expired June 30, 2019, but its terms continue to be in effect. Those compel UMass to pay $120,000 annually related to services “including educating K-12 students who live in tax-exempt housing and first responder services” and called on the town and UMass “to jointly study the impact of K-12 students living in tax-exempt housing on the local schools."

Morris said he is not in the loop on negotiations, noting that is between Town Manager Paul Bockelman and UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Bockelman said Tuesday that there is no update on where things stand in reaching a new deal.

In the school year that ended June 2018, 52 schoolchildren were living in nonprofit housing associated with UMass, with most of these at North Village. North Village, though, is slated to be demolished next year and replaced by new apartments for graduate student families, which might complicate any financial contributions from the university.

Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez said she would like to see a solution that is sustainable sooner rather than later.

Committee member Peter Demling wondered if negotiations linger between the town and UMass, whether school matters might be resolved first, with other parts of the agreement dealt with later.

Bockelman said this might be possible. “We will be talking about that one item in particular, perhaps on a slightly different schedule,” Bockelman said.

A durable revenue stream from UMass would be welcome, said committee member Eric Nakajima, but he was blunt in his assessment to Morris that it seems unlikely anytime soon.

“Don’t count on it,” he said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.