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The Great Divide: Wheaton College and the Town of Norton

Wheaton Wire article by student Monica Vendituoli.

By Monica Vendituoli

From the perspective of Wheaton College, Norton is a nice town.

“My interactions with the town are pretty limited - mostly Norton Fire and Rescue and the Norton Police Department,” said Dean of Students Lee Williams. “Those interactions are positive, as I believe they care deeply about the safety of students, so we have that in common.”

However, after speaking with Town Manager Michael Yunits, Selectman Bob Kimball and Selectman Brad Bramwell, it can be concluded that Norton government officials have a more complex perspective of Wheaton College. Yunits has been the Town Manager of Norton since March 2011. Kimball has been a selectman for 18 years. He has lived in Norton since 1979, but first got involved with Norton’s town government in 1986 as a member of the town’s Finance Committee.

Bramwell got involved with the Norton town government four years ago. A lifelong resident for the past 60 years, Bramwell cites the people of Norton as his favorite aspect of living in Norton. Bramwell also recalls Wheaton student teachers assisting at his elementary school.

After elementary school, Bramwell’s experiences with Wheaton dwindled to a minimum even to this day.

“It’s always like we [had] the Iron Curtain [fall] over in Germany. We seem to have it along West Main Street,” said Bramwell.

Residents share the same sentiment. When asked how much Wheaton impacts Norton, Wheaton resident professor Kirk Anderson replied, “Less than it should!”

Kimball, Bramwell and Yunits mentioned the lack of students seen around town.

“Do [students] just hang out in the middle of there or something? I never see any kids,” asked Yunits in a joking tone. However, his observations reflect a serious divide between Wheaton and the rest of Norton.

“To us, [Wheaton] is an island. Other than walking to CVS or Walgreens, you don’t really see many of the students out there at all,” added Kimball.

Besides CVS and Walgreens, the Town Manager and Selectmen only noted the presence of Wheaton at the local bar, the Sportsway Café. However, Sportsway is often where, “the two mix and sometimes don’t get along too well,” said Kimball.

The shared view from Norton town government officials is that Wheaton operates too often behind the scenes. The Board of Selectmen meets with Wheaton College President Dr. Ronald Crutcher only once or twice a year.

“We used to have a lot more dialogue two or three administrations ago,” Kimball noted.

Wheaton’s status as a tax exempt institution has a negative impact on Norton in terms of revenue for the town. If Wheaton was not a tax exempt institution, it would pay $1.8 million in taxes based on the 2011 fiscal year. However, in the 2011 fiscal year, Wheaton only paid $112,000 in taxes to the town of Norton. Wheaton occasionally requires Norton services such as the ambulance, fire and police. While Wheaton’s use of these services is infrequent, the dynamic sparks tension.

In addition, for several years, Norton has been in the midst of trying to create a tri-town sewage system with Mansfield and Foxborough. Norton must receive a commitment from Wheaton to sign on to create this system, a commitment that Wheaton refuses to make. According to Bramwell, Wheaton will not commit, “because they don’t know how much it’s going to cost.”

While Bramwell understands that Wheaton wants to reserve funds and land to educate students, he also emphasized the enormous benefits the new sewage system would have for both Norton and Wheaton.

Sympathizing with Wheaton students’ occasional boredom, Bramwell admits, “There’s not a heck of a lot to do when the sun goes down [in Norton].”

This is a problem not only for Wheaton students, but also for the high school students in Norton. Bramwell’s family, who owned a couple of local businesses in Norton in the past, attempted to put in a recreation center near the campus years ago. While the center was voted down, Bramwell still aspires to create a building that both Norton residents and Wheaton students can use for recreation.

Wheaton contributes valuable supplies to Norton when needed. The Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) bus system is one of the most successful instances of cooperation between Wheaton and Norton. Currently, Norton is trying to work on adding stops to the route.

Additionally, several years ago Wheaton donated a traffic monitor to Norton. Many Norton residents are unaware of this donation. The residents of Norton are also unaware of the efforts of student volunteers in the local schools.

“I am very happy to say that Wheaton’s relationship with Norton has improved considerably [since I arrived on campus in 2005],” said Dean of Service, Spirituality, and Social Responsibility (SSSR) Vereene Parnell. “In particular, the college and SSSR have developed a very strong partnership that leverages college resources to enhance opportunities for the youth of Norton,” she added, referring to Wheaton students who volunteer in the local schools through connections with SSSR.

Norton residents are also uninformed regarding how to take advantage of Wheaton’s library, which is open to them during the day.

Not all of Wheaton’s contributions to the surrounding community have gone unnoticed. Norton appreciates the Wheaton students that help out at the local food pantry and historical society.

Economically, Wheaton and its student body bring reliable business to local stores and restaurants, and the college serves as an employment source for the surrounding area.

“Wheaton is a large employer in this area,” said professor of Political Science Darlene Boroviak, herself a Norton resident.

“It is a positive that there is a college in the center of the town,” added Yunits. “It presents a good image for the town.”

In addition, at the end of every school year, Hall staff and student volunteers with SSSR gather up useful items students leave behind, sort it, sell it and donate the proceeds to local partners serving "The Greater Norton Metropolitan Area.”

“We raised over $5,000 for and with this year’s partners – Norton Senior High School, Homes with Heart [a local agency serving chronically homeless people], [the] Norton Library and Norton Veterans from the local [Veteran of Foreign Wars] and American Legion,” Parnell said.

Norton is always looking for more volunteers. While they are very appreciative of the Fall Day of Service organized by SSSR, Kimball wishes such events happened more.

“That’s where you build a relationship. When you’re out there picking up trash next to me on the side of the road chatting [and] getting to know each other,” he said.

There are a number of such opportunities in which students can get involved. Norton recently lost a young man from their community in Afghanistan and the Norton Selectmen are creating a committee to create a memorial. The town welcomes students to the committee. Fundraising is also needed for the Norton Energy Fund, which helps people pay for oil to heat their houses in the winter.

Larger volunteer projects that connect to academics are plentiful as well. A project available for biology or environmental science majors involves studying local water bodies. A weed problem in Norton’s waterways has gotten so bad that Norton is considering using chemicals to keep it under control.

There are studies to be done for economics majors as well.

“I’ve always wanted someone to do a study about towns having their own ambulance service,” said Yunits.

Internship opportunities also exist. Those interested in political science are welcome to intern in Norton Town Hall. Norton also has a public access channel that offers several opportunities for students. Just this year, the channel began airing Wheaton sports games so that residents could watch.

“There’s hours that go unfilled on our local access channel. It would be nice to see… [programming] produced by the students,” suggested Bramwell.

In the end, there is more to Norton than meets the eye for Wheaton students. The world just outside the Wheaton bubble has a plethora of opportunities just waiting to be explored. “[Wheaton’s] bubble has to someday… have a crack in it and let some people come through,” said Kimball.

Bill Gouveia October 23, 2012 at 02:43 PM
In terms of town government, we used to have a lot more "Whateon people" involved on the local level. People like Paul Helmreich and Herb Ellison are still involved along with others, but the younger Wheaton folk simply do not get involved in town affairs to any great extent. Hard to blame them, given the way everything is today. And of course, when they do get involved, a lot of people accuse them of trying to institute some "Wheaton agenda". It is amazing how many in town don't even truly realize the college exists.
Trot Nixon October 23, 2012 at 09:26 PM
I don't see why the whole tax issue with the college has created friction. But the state said you couldn't push to tax these schools...so all of a sudden we have to stop dialogue with the town. The hostility in my opionion, as a resident of town for over 20 years, has come from past selectman. maybe not by direct action but public statements and just plain ignoring a wonderful resource such as Wheaton

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