Seeing Double: Amherst College Should Help Fund Local Schools

Amherst’s local public schools are in crisis. Due to declining enrollments, Amherst Regional Public Schools — a cooperative school district that includes the towns of Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury— is facing a $1.2 million budget cut, a reduction that will lead to larger class sizes, fewer art teachers and worse services for high-need students. This all comes just years after previous budget cuts eliminated public preschool and culinary programs at the high school.

But here’s the good news: Amherst College could fix this with a stroke of a pen. As Amherst’s public schools wither for lack of money, Amherst College’s finances have never looked better. During the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2020, the college’s endowment grew by about $90 million after expenditures. Even with the increased spending needed to navigate the pandemic, Kevin Weinman, the college’s chief financial and administrative officer, said in a recent financial update that he has “no doubts that Amherst College will emerge from [the pandemic] very well-positioned strategically and financially.”

It’s unconscionable that public schools mere blocks from our campus don’t have enough money to run art programs and can’t afford to host preschool. We go to one of the richest institutions of higher learning in the world, a college with billions of dollars in its endowment and near-magical growth. Meanwhile, the kids in our local community — some of whom may go on to attend Amherst College — are the victims of years of nationwide cuts to public schools

This year, the college should reach into its pockets and cover the entire budget shortfall. Amherst residents and Amherst College students have circulated a petition calling for just that, and as my co-columnist and I remarked last semester, the college can afford to spend millions of dollars without missing a beat. 

However, one year of funding is nowhere near enough. Instead of stopping there, the college should provide local schools millions of dollars each year in perpetuity. By doing so, the college would undeniably further its educational mission. After all, what difference does college make without K-12 education? But most importantly, those payments would ensure that the college contributes meaningfully to its community in a way that it never has before.

As a non-profit educational institution, Amherst College is exempt from property taxes on most of its land. It has no legal obligation to contribute anything to the town or its schools, despite the fact that it owns some of the most valuable land in the region. According to the college’s 2020 financial report, it owns more than $600 million worth of non-investment property. Much of that land is smack dab in the middle of Amherst’s downtown. And it pays zero taxes on most of it.

To put it another way, the families that live next to Seligman or down the road from Marsh pay more in taxes than the college does on those properties. Likewise for the Amherst town residents who work in Val, Converse or our shiny new science center. Meanwhile, Amherst College, the local billionaire, pays almost nothing.

The Town of Amherst is very aware of this reality. The town is home to three excellent institutions of higher education — Amherst, Hampshire and UMass — that own huge tracts of land. Just a few years ago, the town government voted overwhelmingly in support of a state law that would allow it to tax that land at 25 percent of what a regular owner would pay, but the law went nowhere.

Thankfully, the payments that I call for — known as payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT — are relatively common across Massachusetts, a state home to many rich colleges that ought to pay their fair share. For example, Harvard, one of the only schools richer than Amherst, has voluntarily paid $26 million to the City of Boston over the last ten years. Altogether, Boston collected $14.7 million in PILOT from its colleges in fiscal year 2020. But for some reason, Amherst College has declined to start any such program.

It isn’t unreasonable to ask our college to help out its local community. In fact, it hasn’t shied away from it in the past. In 2005, when local schools faced a similarly-sized budget crisis, the college gave them $70,000. At the time, Amherst’s president said that “American colleges and universities need to recognize the fundamental importance of the secondary schools,” and our treasurer said that the “gift [was] made in recognition that the college benefits from good schools in the town.” They were right, even if they didn’t follow through. A one-time gift of $70,000 is a nice gesture, but it obviously didn’t meaningfully change the dynamics that led to the budget shortfall in the first place.

Amherst College should recognize its duty, as a college and as a community member, to Amherst’s public schools. Though my co-columnist hates supporting local businesses and communities (he refuses to shop at Amherst Books even when he’s spending college money), most of us realize that the college couldn’t exist without this town. Amherst College has the opportunity to end the funding crisis. It can ensure that Amherst’s public schools offer an excellent, well-rounded education far into the future. And if it wants to live up to its values, it should take that opportunity.