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University budget cuts worry leaders

February 24, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown is getting a new higher education center downtown, but local business leaders are worried it won't have the state support it needs to succeed.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has already raided the University System's proposed $2.9 billion budget next year and the legislature is considering another $40 million in cuts.

"Our operating budget is under great stress and they're talking about significant cuts," University System Chancellor William E. Kirwan said last week. "It would really put into jeopardy many things. We're hoping people will speak up and make the point higher education should not be cut further."

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At a breakfast meeting with Washington County lawmakers in Annapolis last week, the Greater Hagerstown Committee expressed concerns about the ability of the University System to run the Hagerstown Education Center when it opens next fall in the former Baldwin House complex. Greater Hagerstown is a group of business leaders who try to come up with solutions to community problems.

The center is especially vulnerable to budget cuts because it doesn't have its own line item in the University System's budget, Guy Altieri, president of Hagerstown Community College, told the group.

Altieri is also worried that budget cuts will deter University System presidents from offering programs in Hagerstown.

"They need to worry first and foremost about their own campuses," he said.

Originally, the Hagerstown center was supposed to be modeled after the Shady Grove Education Center, where eight public universities offer courses mostly to students from nearby Montgomery College so they can finish the last two years of their bachelor's degrees.

But Altieri doubts the universities, due to lack of money as well as their distance from Hagerstown, will offer enough programs here to make such a model successful.

To make the best use of the center, Altieri believes the center should be opened up to out-of-state public and private higher education institutions.

He also believes that Hagerstown Community College should play a large role in the center's operation.

The college has closer ties to the community than the University System and would be able to offer things that will be lacking at the downtown center such as child-care services and science and technology lab space, he said.

Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, said he was surprised that the center will lack science labs after the state spends $13 million on the renovation.

"I frankly wouldn't make a choice to send a child through that school. I'm not sure we're not wasting money here," he said.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said the University System will have labs, but it plans to configure the building after deciding what programs will be offered.

Weldon warned that a piecemeal approach to developing the center could leave it doomed.

When the state was flush with cash in the late 1990s, it built many facilities that will now have to be staffed in leaner times, said Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington.

"In essence, I think we've overextended ourselves," he said.

Altieri gave lawmakers an eight-page proposal outlining the problem and offering recommendations for solutions.

Washington County lawmakers said they support Altieri's plan.

A local steering committee is being resurrected to work on the problem.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he has brought the budget concerns to the attention of Ehrlich.

As a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Munson is also in a position to protect the University System from cuts.

But some fiscal conservatives on the committee believe that some further cuts to higher education are inevitable, although legislators realize the governor's cuts have already taken a toll.

"We're trying to take the pain and spread it out. Higher education is not immune," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll/Frederick.

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