Former AG: UMass law school finance plan unconstitutional

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January 26, 2010, 6:02 pm
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(NECN: Greg Wayland, Boston, Mass.) - A plan to create the first public law school in Massachusetts hits a speed bump. The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education held a hearing today on the plan.

The University of Massachusetts hopes to acquire the Southern New England School of Law, but there is new opposition to that plan.

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly
said Monday that the proposed financing plan for the state's first
public law school is unconstitutional.


      
Reilly said that under the Massachusetts constitution, all
tuition collected at state colleges and universities must be
funneled back to the state's general fund.
      
He said the proposal for a law school at the University of
Massachusetts-Dartmouth tries to get around that by labeling as
"fees" nearly 90 percent of what students would pay in education
costs. State schools are allowed to keep fees. He called on
Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate the plan.
      
"They're trying to rush through a major acquisition and it's
relying on a financing plan that in my opinion violates the
Massachusetts constitution," Reilly told The Associated Press.
"This is a heck of a way to start a law school."
      
UMass spokesman Robert Connolly said Reilly's opinion is an
attempt to block the school and "flies in the face of the
long-standing, legally recognized practice" at all of the state's
29 colleges and universities.
      
"This concept underpins the financing of public higher
education in Massachusetts," Connolly said.
      
Connolly also called Reilly's criticism "a desperate,
last-minute attempt to prevent the creation of an affordable,
public legal education program" driven by a private law school
that fears competition.
      
Reilly has been hired by New England Law, a law school in
Boston, but said his opinion comes from his years as the state's
top law enforcement officer.
      
He said under his reading of the constitution, the financing
system throughout the state's higher education system is in
jeopardy.
      
"The funding mechanism for all of the colleges and university
is subject to the same threat," Reilly said. "What they've done
throughout the system is to call tuition a fee."
      
Reilly's criticism comes a day before the state Board of Higher
Education is scheduled to hold a public hearing in Worcester on the
proposed law school.
      
The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees last month
approved the plan to create the school.
      
By a 14-4 margin, trustees agreed to the plan that would require
the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth to send tuition revenue
from the proposed law school to the state but would allow the
campus to retain student fees.
      
The plan will go to the state Board of Higher Education in
February for final ratification.
      
The board for the Southern New England School of Law has offered
to donate its campus to UMass-Dartmouth. A similar plan was
previously rejected.
      
Some of the state's private law schools have criticized the
plan, saying the state can't afford it.
      
Gov. Deval Patrick supports the law school proposal. He said it
has been thoroughly studied and should be a financial boon to the
university. He said he hadn't seen Reilly's letter.
      
"All of the homework that's been done on it suggests that it
improves the university's fiscal status," Patrick told reporters.
      
Other groups have objected to the law school, saying the state
can't afford another major public investment given its ongoing
fiscal woes.
      
The Pioneer Institute, a Beacon Hill think tank, said the law
school proposal would end up putting Massachusetts taxpayers on the
hook for more than $50 million over the next five years and would
require ongoing annual subsidies of $8-$11 million.

*Material from The Associated Press used in this report*

Tags: UMass, law school
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