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On-campus UNH students with kids in local schools told to pay $17,000 per child

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
New Hampshire Union Leader

December 03. 2017 1:33PM
The Mast Way School in Lee is one of two elementary schools in the Oyster River Cooperative School District. UNH students who live on campus and are parents will have to pay for each of their children enrolled in the school district starting next summer. (mw.orcsd.org)



DURHAM - On-campus students at the University of New Hampshire who are also parents got the ultimate sticker shock last week - a $17,600 bill per child.

That's what they'll need to start paying starting in July for each child enrolled in the Oyster River Cooperative School District.

This new charge will be levied on residents who are parents living in the Forest Park housing complex on campus - located at 4 Demeritt Circle and just behind Kingsbury Hall.

The space is reserved for married undergraduate and graduate students with families, as well as staff and faculty with children.

Seven of these children attend Oyster River currently and six are enrolled for the following school year when the charge will take effect, according to David May, assistant vice president of business affairs at UNH.

"The current rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Forest Park is $1,138 per month or $13,656 per year," May said. "This is approximately $3,900 less than the cost of the school agreement."

Starting next summer, UNH will charge these students about $1,500 a month more, which represents the average cost to educate a Durham student in the Oyster River district, which provides public schooling for children who live in Durham, Lee and Madbury.

As a result, these residents, many of whom are international students, will see their rents more than double - to about $2,600 per month in the 2018-19 school year with one child, nearly $4,000 per month for parents of two children.

For decades, the town of Durham and UNH negotiated a "school agreement" that had the school covering this average cost for students living in tax-exempt campus housing.

Every single year, including the current one, UNH simply cut a check to the Oyster River School District to cover that cost, $119,702 in the case of the 2017-18 school year.

"Before this agreement, the actual cost of educating those kids was being socialized across Durham but excluding all those living in tax-exempt housing," said Todd Selig, Durham's town administrator.

"It was a clear financial impact that UNH and the graduate students and the families of those students were having on the citizens of Durham that didn't seem fair. So we negotiated a per pupil payment, no more and no less than to compensate for those costs."

The school agreements last for 10 years and the last one was negotiated in April 2016.

This coming year will be the first when students will have to bear those school costs because of budget constraints, May said.

"We are proud of our track record of prudent fiscal management," May said.

"We are always looking for ways to reduce costs."

Budget tightening is taking place across the University System of New Hampshire.

Administrators at Keene State College announced this week they were looking to trim $5.5 million and were cutting upper management by converting from three schools to two and offering voluntary buyouts.

But this fee is more than what most Durham homeowners pay to educate their children at Oyster River. The average local property tax bill in town is $10,000 according to local tax records.

UNH says talks continue

May has said UNH remains in talks with school and town officials but the university can no longer afford to shoulder the payment.

Ironically, Selig said May vigorously has fought the town charging UNH the full amount per student, instead lobbying for a marginal cost payment.

"These are always tough negotiations from both sides," Selig said.

"If UNH is now passing on that cost directly to tenants who are graduate students, I don't have an opinion on that. It's beyond our involvement as a municipality."

State Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, is a longtime supporter of UNH at the State House but said he can't defend this fee.

"I am usually sympathetic to the university on these things. I don't want to be too judgmental. I defended the football scoreboard, but this does not sound like a good idea," Horrigan said.

"Many of the grad students are international students so I don't know how they can be paying for this out of their own pocket. This really puts these families in a bind."

Ling Zhu, a lecturer in Mandarin Chinese from Chengdu, China, who has been living in Forest Park with her husband and son since she came to UNH in August 2016, told The New Hampshire campus newspaper her family will look for new housing next year.

"It is one reason for me to move. Most important is that I can live at the university, where my colleagues live together," Zhu says.

Horrigan said that shouldn't have to happen.

"I think passing it on to the grad students just doesn't make sense on the face of it," Horrigan said.

"This is something that flew under the radar. I am looking into it, and I think they should find another solution for it."

In the past, there were many more Oyster River students living in campus housing. When Selig came to Durham more than a dozen years ago, he said there were 43 students.

Horrigan recalled, "Forest Park used to be twice as big as it is now. Back when I was in middle school, one of my best friends was one of the older kids living in the complex."

Selig said if the students with children leave Forest Park on their own in the coming year, the controversy goes away, but that's their choice to make.

"If they move off campus, then UNH or them won't have to pay," Selig said.

"And they will live in taxable rental housing. I'd be fine with that if it works out that way, but I know it would be disruptive for the residents."

klandrigan@unionleader.com


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