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In Annapolis, anti-education crew rears its head again

March 22, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

Last year, in regard to a funding crisis for the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown campus, we were assured that the school would not find itself in the same pickle again.

"You can never say never, but I think there was a general understanding that it won't come back next year," USM Chancellor William E. Kirwan said last April.

Well, it's back.

Only this year, if anything, it's worse. Certainly the grim economy and a state budget awash in red ink are today's realities that Kirwan could not have seen coming a year ago.

But certain Washington County realities remain constant, and those will always be an argument against optimism.

Again, Washington County is the first place the state looks when it needs to make cuts. Again, these cuts caught us off guard. Again, our lawmakers are spending time fighting among themselves when they ought to be standing united against those who would gut the campus.

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Lawmakers this week were hopeful that all would be resolved by the weekend. Even so, that obviously isn't a guarantee it won't happen all over again in 2010.

The state's contribution to the Hagerstown university was already paltry - the $2 million it receives is barely enough to keep the doors open. Then, a budget analyst recommended that the state cut this further, to a joke-like $172,000.

Two things about state budget analysts: One, they primarily want to make the numbers work; they are less concerned about the impact of their recommendations. Two, their "recommendations" are usually a reflection of what their bosses, the lawmakers, want to hear.

This gives the lawmakers plausible deniability - "Hey, it wasn't my idea, it was the budget analyst's."

Del. John Bohanan, a St. Mary's County Democrat who apparently believes that the young people in his district are more deserving of an education than those in Western Maryland, led the charge last year against the Hagerstown campus. This year a "budget analyst" is helping him out.

One hundred miles from Annapolis, here's what the situation looks like: Bohanan wants the Hagerstown campus to close, so some of its funding can be used for the college in his district. He may protest, but at this point there is little room for alternative interpretations.

He must love the fact that, instead of spending all their energy on a full offensive, Dels. John Donog-hue and Chris Shank are wasting time fighting like a couple of old women at a bridge game over whose fault all of this is.

So once again, instead of depending on our lawmakers, the public is being called upon to contact state leaders to reiterate the need for the campus. When they do, it might be worth talking in terms that lawmakers can understand - specifically in terms of money.

Washington County continues to lose manufacturing jobs at an alarming rate. To the degree that the slack is picked up, it's the big warehouses along the interstates that may pay $10 an hour. Lawmakers on the budget committees know How much taxes are paid on a $20,000 salary, which is to say, not much.

Now consider the taxes paid by those educated at the Hagerstown university in fields such as nursing, business administration, computers and engineering. Needless to say, it doesn't take many graduates in these fields to more than pay, in taxes, for the university funding.

As local educators well know, we've had enough trouble getting our kids to see the value - the necessity - of higher education. The logical assumption is that the state would be strongly pushing us to produce more college grads instead of throwing every roadblock it can into our path. The fact that this hasn't happened almost defies belief in an age when higher education is essential.

A somewhat perplexed President Obama once commented on eighth-grade graduations he's attended that were awash with gowns, flowers and pomp:

"I think to myself, it's just eighth grade. To really compete, they need to graduate high school, and then they need to graduate college, and they probably need a graduate degree, too. An eighth-grade education doesn't cut it today. Let's give them a handshake and tell them to get their butts back in the library."

If the State of Maryland continues down its present path, there may be no library at a higher level for the kids to get their butts back into.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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