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University funding will be a tough fight

January 12, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Hagerstown Education Center of the University System of Maryland will open next January, even if state government doesn't provide the $1.8 million in operating funds USM officials are seeking, according to William "Britt" Kirwan, the system's chancellor.

Kirwan, in Hagerstown this week for an "Eggs and Issues" breakfast held by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, made the assurances after the program during a conversation with state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington.

Munson told Kirwan that a USM official had informed him that the money to open the center was definitely in the system's budget. Munson said that same official hadn't mentioned the "separate list" budget process that Kirwan told the chamber's guests would be necessary to get the cash.

(Kirwan told the audience that due to the state's budget crunch, the governor had instructed USM officials not to put anything extra into their budget. Instead, new items USM officials felt were absolutely necessary were to be put onto a "separate list.")

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Without the "separate list" money, Kirwan told Munson, the Hagerstown center's doors would open, but only as a bare-bones operation.

Earlier Kirwan told the audience that the response to his Aug. 20, 2003, letter to The Herald-Mail asking for "a true groundswell of support for higher education" had been overwhelming, including a letter-writing campaign to state officials in support of the project.

The chancellor will need all that support and more in the coming session of the Maryland General Assembly. That's because even though $1.8 million is only a small part of a multi-billion-dollar state budget, it's likely the project will be used by both Gov. Robert Ehrlich and House Speaker Michael Busch in an attempt to sway the local delegation on other issues.

For example, Ehrlich would like to legalize slot machines at the state's horse race tracks to ease the state's financial woes. But while Busch might agree to that, the speaker also wants increased taxes, something the governor has said he won't agree to.

Under Maryland law, only the governor can add cash to the budget, but the legislature can cut it. Thus local lawmakers have to find a way to please two top elected officials with very different agendas.

That's a task for which they'll need all the help they can get, because Chancellor Kirwan will be busy defending the system against charges leveled by some state lawmakers who have said recently that USM's first response to state cuts is not to look at its own budget, but to raise tuition.

Tuition was increased in the middle of the last academic year and USM's Board of Regents recently voted to boost it again by 9.4 percent for next fall. And after Kirwan told the regents that he might seek yet another increase if Ehrlich can't find $61 million more for USM, including $17.5 million for needy students' financial aid, Ehrlich said he might consider a bill to cap tuition. The governor also criticized the perks some top USM administrators get.

Other lawmakers who know a cap would please all the parents and students who pay the bills, are jumping on the bandwagon.

But Kirwan defended USM's handling of its budget, saying that after state government cut the system's budget by 14 percent last year, that left a $200 million hole to fill.

The system's first response was not to raise tuition, Kirwan said, but to cut 800 positions systemwide, or about 4 percent of the work force. As for the contention that USM is top-heavy with administrators, Kirwan said it's a difficult issue to discuss, but said that one way is to compare Maryland with "peer institutions" in other states.

Using that yardstick, Kirwan said, Maryland has only "one non-teaching staff member" for every 100 students, while those "peers" in other states have a ratio of one-per-67 students.

Kirwan is a personable, experienced administrator who makes a strong argument that when the so-called "baby boom echo" hits in 2010, Maryland high school graduating classes will increase by 30 percent, and those students and their parents will expect the state to provide them with educational opportunities.

Yes, USM should be accountable, Kirwan said, but the reality is that half the cost of educating a student is paid for through tuition and half by funds from state government. To cap tuition and cut state aid at the same time is an arrangement that won't work, he said.

Still, just as some people pointed to Washington County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan's private bathroom as evidence of administrative excess, Kirwan must realize that every free auto or club membership will provide ammunition for lawmakers who want to play to those who don't make the salaries top administrators do.

That's a fight that will keep Kirwan busy in the 2004 session, making it doubly important that local folks with ties to Busch and Ehrlich keep reminding those two of how important the Hagerstown Education Center is.

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