“I just want to clarify that this bill is not a tax break, as it’s been established La Salle has not been paying taxes,” stated Representative Daniel McKiernan, in response to his Democratic primary opponent David Morales.
At a District 5 community meeting held Monday evening Senator Sam Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) gave the following summary:
- La Salle is not paying taxes.
- Legally they should have been.
- Lawyers for the school noticed and raised the issue.
- The bill would codify exemption.
A bill proposed by Representative Daniel McKiernan (Democrat, District 7, Providence) would exempt La Salle Academy from paying taxes on properties owned by the school. To the surprise of many constituents at this meeting, it appears that La Salle is already, unofficially, exempt from taxation. Numerous times throughout the evening Senator Bell stated that based on his review of tax law, charters, and through conversations with the Mayor’s office or Providence tax officials that “it is crystal clear” La Salle has not and should have been paying property taxes to the City of Providence. McKiernan disagreed that they should have been paying property taxes, claiming that La Salle has never paid them “on religious and educational grounds.” La Salle Academy declined a request for interview, instead responding that “La Salle Academy, established in 1871, is a not for profit, 501 (c) (3) tax exempt religious organization. As the ownership name has changed in the real estate documents, we believe it is prudent to correct the record and memorialize this long established tax exempt status.” Wednesday morning, I responded and asked whether La Salle would be providing documentation to Providence tax officials to bridge this difference in understanding regarding their tax status, and have yet to hear back. La Salle also confirmed that Representative Daniel McKiernan proposed this bill after lawyers representing La Salle identified the issue. Thursday night, right before publishing this article, Morales tweeted that McKiernan had postponed the bill. McKiernan has not responded to two emails sent earlier this week.
“I’m not seeing why the approach here should be to also not tax La Salle, when we could tax La Salle, Brown, RISD, and Johnson & Wales,” stated a constituent, to a chorus of verbal agreement from others in the room.
Statements regarding the precarious nature of the state and city budgets or the high property taxes facing homeowners were common throughout the meeting. This sentiment culminated in a hand vote indicating that a majority at the meeting oppose the tax exemption. Senator Bell later indicated to Uprise RI that he would oppose Representative McKiernan’s proposed bill, and then officially came out against it in a press release. David Morales, McKiernan’s opponent in the District 7 Democratic House primary, also opposes this bill.
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“The issue revolves around the treatment of private schools that own large amounts of land. Under section 44-3-3 of the Rhode Island General Laws, private schools can exempt their buildings from taxation, but they can only exempt up to an acre of land. La Salle Academy sits on 26.08 acres, according to city property records. Because there is a chapel on the site, La Salle may be able to exempt an additional five acres. Most of the value of the property held by La Salle Academy lies in the buildings, so the taxes La Salle Academy should owe on excess land would only be a small portion of what they would pay were they taxed at full value,” stated Senator Bell in that same press release, a reiteration of comments he made at the community meeting.
Bell and McKiernan took turns respectfully sharing observations of La Salle’s tax status with context from the tax status of other private schools in Providence who also may not be paying taxes on their properties. McKiernan argued that his proposed bill is simply codifying the exemption for La Salle, and claimed that tax exemptions for schools like Brown University are a separate issue. Bell strongly disagreed with McKiernan’s position, stating that he opposes tax exemptions for all wealthy non-profits.
Following this substantial conversation, David Morales stood up and stated that “Tuition at LaSalle is $15,000, they have 24 acres, and a majority of students are from outside the city. What benefit is La Salle giving to our community? I’m disappointed we have to entertain this. There’s an affordable housing shortage… we shouldn’t be discussing a tax break for La Salle.”
“I just want to clarify that this bill is not a tax break, as it’s been established La Salle has not been paying taxes,” responded McKiernan.
Nellie, another constituent, added that “We need offices or daycares for working people, yet we’re focused on La Salle. My daughter went to La Salle and I work on a limited budget. When it would come to payment I would tell them I will come pay after work, but they will send her to sit in the library until I pay, her missing the whole school day. What benefit are they doing for me? She graduated, went to Roger Williams, and worked for the state [on a successful project or initiative]. La Salle sent for her to speak [to current students] but they forgot how they treated her.”
In response to the concerns of those such as Morales and Nellie, a La Salle teacher pointed out that approximately 200 La Salle students are from Providence and attend tuition free, asserting that as a benefit which equals millions in savings to city taxpayers. Other constituents responded to the La Salle teacher, either stating that number is not enough or that the arrangement constitutes a special deal. One constituent suggested that instead La Salle could continue to provide Providence youth with this “valuable” education but as part of a structured agreement, which David Morales pointed out is commonly referred to as a “community benefits agreement.” McKiernan has not responded to an email asking whether he would amend to the bill to include a community benefits agreement. “It appears that McKiernan has not hosted a community meeting since July,” stated Morales to Uprise RI.
Another amicable disagreement highlighted the massive wealth disparities that exist between private and public schools in Providence. The La Salle teacher stated that the school needed their 26 acres as “all of it is used for educational purposes, such as physical education,” while constituent and information expert Nick Inglis pointed out that how they use their land is not the issue, rather that state law limits exemptions to one acre for educational purposes which La Salle is vastly exceeding. Inglis further noted that many city schools, including his child’s, own little more land than the school building sits on, to which the La Salle teacher admitted he did not realize, and agreed was shameful.
Black, immigrant parents commanded attention on the topic of taxation. Nellie especially shared numerous personal stories regarding the struggles of raising children in neighborhoods with dangerously unmaintained sidewalks and trees, and decried a lack of action on these dangers from mayors since Buddy Cianci, whom she met with personally, and up to Jorge Elorza. Nellie noted that taxes for homeowners may continue to rise in part due to the ongoing lost tax revenue from La Salle Academy and other private schools in the city. Following the meeting, I turned to Nellie, who was sitting in the seat next to me, and asked her if she had heard of Mom’s 4 Housing, the group of mothers in California who successfully occupied and acquired homes for themselves and other low-income families. She was not familiar with this occurrence, but excitedly recalled a similar, less radical one in the past, and told me that it always makes her smile to hear about people who advocate for working families, something she has done relentlessly since she first came to Rhode Island. She told everyone at the meeting, and reminded me after, that she “will never stop fighting for the people, and to continue to speak out, to be the squeaky wheel.”