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COMMENTARY

Brown University can and should do more for the people of Providence

Being a good neighbor requires making sacrifices that aren’t solely focused on economics, one local councilman says

Brown University's Main Green.Colleen Cronin

In early October, we learned that Brown University’s endowment returned a net 51.5 percent generated investment return for the last fiscal year, increasing it to $6.9 billion.

As a two-time Brown alumnus and a member of Brown University’s Alumni Association Board of Governors, this is welcoming and exciting news considering the endowment financially supports a wide variety of Brown’s strategic priorities that make it a world-class institution we all know and love.

However, a stark contrast exists between the Ivory Tower on College Hill and the Providence Public Schools, of which I’m also an alumnus.

Decades ago, I proudly attended Fox Point Elementary School, which was re-named  “Vartan Gregorian” in 1997, after Brown’s late former president. I remember a shabby building with the occasional leaky roof that was just enough to create a secure learning environment to allow me, my peers, and teachers to succeed — if we were lucky.

As I walk through the school today, the building looks virtually the same, with meager infrastructure improvements and piecemeal investments as a result of a city budget that has been severely stretched thin due to a looming $1.2 billion unfunded pension liability. The neighborhood, however, does not look the same, as Brown continues its unbounded expansion, altering the historic fabric and vibrancy of Fox Point, College Hill, and the Jewelry District.

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In Fox Point, families have been displaced, long-time residents priced out of the neighborhood due to rising rents and property valuations, and dozens of beautiful historic homes demolished to accommodate the University’s exponential growth.

We all recognize Brown’s symbiotic relationship with the city of Providence and its positive local impact: more than 1,400 employees who contribute to the tax base, historic investments in real estate, public-private partnerships with Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and more.

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However, being a good neighbor requires making sacrifices that perhaps don’t align purely on economic incentives for and increasing enrollment at an institution that many local residents can’t afford.

Properties near Brown continue to be gobbled up by the tax-exempt university, taking them off the tax rolls. Just a few weeks ago, we saw Brown, under a subsidiary, purchase the River House for $75 million to use for grad students, thereby eliminating 174 units of housing during a citywide housing crunch and benefiting from the transfer of a tax break via the Tax Stabilization Agreement.

After its endowment increased to a staggering $6.9 billion, Brown announced it will significantly increase scholarships for moderate-income students and develop an intensive college preparation program for “talented” students from public schools in Providence. While extremely noble, what we need more of is investments at the front end, in early childhood education, not toward the tail end of their PreK-12 academic careers.

Last year, I congratulated President Christina Paxson for finally delivering on former university president Ruth Simmons’ 2013 promise of funding a $10 million endowment for the students of Providence and Providence Public Schools.

Unfortunately, in reality, this is a drop in the bucket.

The $10 million in principal was projected to result in an initial payout of approximately $400,000 to $500,000 annually to PPSD now and in perpetuity, but such an investment only scratches the surface of what local public schools need.

Ironically, over the past two academic years, in support of its diversity and inclusion plan, Brown University received more than double this amount, raising over $20 million from capital campaigns to battle racism and discrimination and a pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color.

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At the same time, 22,000 Providence Public Schools students, mostly students of color, specifically 68% of students identifying as Latinx, and 15% Black, are getting the short end of the stick.

Based on 2018 assessed values, Brown, as one of the largest tax-exempt institutions in the city, would owe the city of Providence about $48 million a year if the university had to pay taxes on the properties it owns. Instead, it paid about $6.2 million in voluntary payments and property taxes for fiscal year 2020.

This begs the question: Should Brown do more for people in its own backyard and pay more of its fair share?

As a proud Brown alumnus, I believe the answer is yes.

The annual savings, tax-exempt privileges, and subsidies Brown receives in comparison to what it gives back to the Providence community seem to perpetuate the city’s disparities and inequities, and the property tax burden continues to fall more and more on the shoulders of city residents, especially those on the East Side.

While the University’s core mission is higher education, Brown can and should contribute more to helping fix the woes of our public school system and rising property taxes. If the university gave back financially to our schools and our city with the same kind of gumption it applies to its rapid growth and expansion goals, we might be in a very different place.

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Brown needs to make a commitment to systemic, transformational change by partnering with the city of Providence to forge even greater Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) and voluntary contribution agreements without expiration dates to bolster contributions to the local economy. They should consider following in fellow Ivy League school Dartmouth’s footsteps, and agree to pay taxes on buildings like student dormitories, or Harvard, which has made Boston one of the most-successful PILOT revenue-generating cities as of 2010. And they should substantially invest in Providence Public Schools.

If all Providence Public Schools, including Vartan, do well, the economic benefits are a win-win - our children will be more prepared for the 21st-century economy, and more prospective talent, including Brown employees, may decide to live in Providence and invest in public school, thereby not having to pay for a private school on top of exorbitant property taxes.

These are just a few ideas and what, I hope, are compelling reasons why, Brown, notwithstanding all the wonderful things the institution currently does, can and should do more for the children, families, and people of Providence.

The success of the city and Brown are intertwined so let’s get to work.

John Goncalves is the City Councilman for Ward 1 in Providence representing Fox Point, Wayland Square, College Hill, The Jewelry District, and Downtown.