Beam: Education community at odds

By By Jim Beam / American Press

One thing that higher education doesn’t

need right now is a split within its ranks, but it has one anyway. The

state Board

of Regents and three university management boards are upset with

pending legislation that sets up over $251 million in projects

benefiting the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Sowela Community and Technical College

has two big projects listed in the bill. It includes $9 million for the

Morgan Smith

Campus at Jennings and $7.2 million for its main campus at Lake

Charles. Morgan Smith trains its students in automotive, welding,

nursing and industrial skills.

Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, is sponsor of House Bill 204 that has been approved in committee and is awaiting a Senate floor

vote.

The Board of Regents, the coordinating agency for higher education, is upset with the LCTC system for trying to go around

the normal process for approving construction projects.

Jim Purcell, state commissioner of higher education, argues the community and technical college system is doing an end run

that violates the state constitution. He said construction projects are supposed to go through the state’s capital outlay

system where competition for funding is fierce.

The regents have picked up support from

state Treasurer John Kennedy and the state Bond Commission that handles

capital outlay

projects. The main argument is that it would cost $20 million a

year to pay off the $251 million in bonds that would be issued.

That is money that wouldn’t be available for the other higher education systems. The other boards manage LSU, Southern and

the University of Louisiana System that oversees McNeese State University and eight other institutions.

This is Adley’s baby, and he isn’t at all happy about the regents’ complaints. He said the community and technical colleges

provide the skilled workers necessary to meet current and future demands.

“I’m mad about it,” he said. “Every time someone tries to do something that is good, they get afraid... They’re only trying

to protect their turf.”

Joe May, president of the LCTC system,

also defends the legislation. He said his system is one of the top two

fastest growing

in the country and needs to update its facilities as necessary.

The system reports that since 2000 its enrollment has increased

by 87 percent to 75,567 students.

The community college system is a

fairly recent development in Louisiana. In the early 1900s,

post-secondary training schools

were created for high school graduates who didn’t attend larger

universities. Junior colleges came along in the 1930s. McNeese

was one of those with ties to LSU. It was founded in 1939.

Community colleges as we know them today began to grow nationally

in the 1950s.

Louisiana had junior colleges, but

nothing compared to other states. The community college system wasn’t

officially created

in this state until voters approved a constitutional amendment in

1998 during the administration of Gov. Mike Foster. Members

of that system have been playing catch-up since then. Sowela, for

example, is only beginning now to even look like a higher

education institution.

Edwards Barham of Oak Ridge is a former

regent who serves on the LCTCS board. He said community and technical

colleges back

in 1999 operated in abandoned stores and unused university

buildings. Barham added that Govs. Foster, Kathleen Blanco and

Bobby Jindal have approved more than $366 million in funding for

community college facilities outside of the normal capital

outlay process.

Valid arguments can be made that the LCTC System is bypassing the usual channels with Adley’s bill, but it has widespread

support. The Advocate noted that business leaders, health care professionals and elected officials spoke in support of the

legislation before it was approved last week by the Senate Finance Committee.

In 1997, legislation creating the LCTC System passed 34-4 in the state Senate and 101-1 in the House. Voters statewide approved

it by a 66-to-34 percent margin in 1998.

If this issue were put to a vote, the odds are that public sympathies would be with the community and technical college system.

That is because it makes higher education and technical training more accessible for Louisiana students at a lower cost.

Colleges and universities also make

good arguments. They have experienced tremendous budget cuts in their

operating funds

over the last five years. They believe the $20 million it will

take every year to pay off these community and technical college

bonds will come off the top and crimp their budgets even more.

The current division in the higher

education community over this issue wouldn’t be happening if the

governor and members of

the Legislature had been better managers of state finances.

Colleges and universities in every system deserve better support

than what they have been getting in recent years out of Baton

Rouge.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com