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Old 2-year college try

Special to the Herald-Guide -   May 23, 2013

by John Maginnis

In the past five hard years of higher educationís declining state support, rising tuition, defecting faculty and deteriorating facilities, college leaders have stuck together and let the Board of Regents coordinate their requests for funding from the Legislature. A lot of good that did them.

Now the community college system, the only one growing in enrollment, has had enough of standing in line. In the most audacious power play of the legislative session, one that is shaking the foundations of higher education, the two-year colleges are close to pulling off a $250 million end run on established procedure in order to build 28 training and technology centers all around the state.

Supporters hail the plan as essential to training a skilled workforce to fill technical jobs in high demand areas. Opponents call it a debt-ceiling buster that violates the spirit if not the letter of the constitution and robs four-year colleges of badly needed resources.

Instead of following the usual process for approving and financing construction projects, called capital outlay, Senate Bill 204 cuts to the front of the line to authorize $250 million in borrowing, to be repaid with $20 million a year for 20 years coming out of the state budget.

The plan is the brainchild of Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, who is earning the reputation as the keenest politician in higher education. His first smart move was to team with Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, widely regarded as among the shrewdest of legislators and the most tenacious.

The bill is sailing through the Capitol with the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal and the promised financial backing of business owners in each region. They will be putting up the billís required 12 percent local match for each project, which, in turn, will train future employees for them.

The bill is strenuously opposed by the rest of the higher education community. It galls university heads that the two-year colleges are grabbing new construction dollars when there is a $1.7 billion backlog of deferred maintenance to existing college buildings. The members of the Board of Regents charge that May and Adley are subverting the coordinating role of Regents, as set out in the constitution, that the three other college systems have followed for decades.

Regents Chairman Bubba Rasberry told the House Education Committee, "This will bring out competition in the most vulgar and political way." No strangers to vulgar, political competition, the committee approved the bill unanimously.

Legislators are sympathetic to the plight of the universities, but they have bought into the argument that it is more urgent and less costly to train future welders, nurses and auto mechanics than it is to educate more administrators, engineers and lawyers. They see the bill addressing the 75 percent of high school students who wonít be going on to four-year colleges. They hear business owners complaining they canít find the qualified employees for jobs that are available and the more that would be created it there was a skilled workforce to fill them.

University leaders counter that with up-to-date laboratories and renovated dorms, the four-year schools could be attracting better students who will go on to even higher paying professions. But thatís a more expensive, long-term proposition for lawmakers to wrap their heads around.

The other consequence that does not seem to bother legislators much is that authorizing more borrowing would bust their self-imposed debt limit, which, warned Treasurer John Kennedy, could jeopardize the stateís bond rating. It wonít just cost $20 million per year to pay off the new construction debt, he argued, but three or four times that amount when the other college systems come back to the Capitol next year seeking equal treatment. "You canít do it for one and not the other," he said.

That remains to be seen. Just as two-year college enrollment is growing much faster than that of four-year schools, so is the political momentum for the community college system, which was established only 14 years ago.

Ultimately, itís the hand of Gov. Jindal silently is clearing the path for the new systemís expansion, relieving legislators of any qualms about it not following the normal process, because he is the process.

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