BEAM: It’s Colleges vs. Community Colleges At The Legislature

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, postsecondary 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.

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