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Amendment calls for USM-H viability study

March 25, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

Shank: USM-H should be modeled after Southern Maryland Center

ANNAPOLIS -- A task force would study the best and most viable model for the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown under a budget amendment proposed Wednesday by Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr.

The task force would examine whether the downtown Hagerstown center should offer non-USM programs and institutions, among other things. Myers, R-Allegany/Washington, said the study would result in a plan to improve the center's long-term academic and financial outlook, and hopefully prevent state lawmakers from targeting USM-H for budget cuts in the future.

This is the second year lawmakers are considering cuts that could threaten the center's future.

"Over the last year, leaders in Annapolis have raised questions about the size of this line item versus similar centers across the state," Myers said of USM-H's budget. "The delegation feels that the taxpayers deserve some answers to those questions."

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However, C. David Warner III, executive director of USM-H, said the study is unnecessary. The downtown Hagerstown campus already can offer non-USM programs and is "financially viable and strategically positioned for strong academic program growth," Warner said.

The Maryland House of Delegates approved the amendment, but it wouldn't take effect until the overall state budget is passed. Myers' amendment does not affect the current House recommendation to cut $500,000 from the center's $2 million budget in the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget being considered by the House also includes a reduction in USM-H funding over the next four years to $172,000 -- the amount the center would receive if it was a non-USM center.

Officials have said cutting the budget that much would force the closure of the campus, which offers 21 programs from six universities and enrolled 455 full- and part-time students as of the fall of 2008.

The Senate has rejected proposals for cuts and prefers a 1 percent funding increase. Since the House and the Senate versions are different, the two sides likely will reach a compromise in conference.

That is what happened last year when Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary's, who heads the House subcommittee that cut USM-H funding, pushed to eliminate all $2.1 million for USM-H in fiscal year 2009. The money would have been spread among several non-USM higher education centers, including one in his district. Under the proposal, USM-H might have received $700,000. The House and Senate negotiated a compromise that restored $2 million to USM-H.

The amendment

Myers' amendment allows the delegation from Washington County to appoint "a task force to study the fiscal and programmatic viability" of USM-H.

"This group will look at what other centers are doing to bring in financial support and increase enrollment," Myers said. "Also, the group will make recommendations on how best to improve the center."

In particular, the task force would study whether non-USM programs should be offered at USM-H.

Warner said USM-H already can offer a non-USM program if a USM university will not offer it and there has been a demonstrated need. That situation has never occurred, he said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said the amendment offered by Myers is harmless, but said officials should be careful it does not result in funding cuts for USM-H. He said if the task force recommends USM-H offer non-USM programs, the Hagerstown center could lose its USM status and subsequently the bulk of its state funding.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Myers' amendment only will "muddy the water" when USM-H funding is discussed in conference.

Munson said he was "reasonably certain" the task force would not be approved by the Senate.

"The viability (of USM-H) has already been established," he said. "The center is working, and is working very well."

Warner said the current USM-H model is successful as it is.

"The system is uniquely positioned to bring quality academic programs from respected Maryland universities to Hagerstown," he said.

USM-H has grown from 12 programs when it opened four years ago to 19 programs, with plans to add two more in the next academic year.

The task force would have to submit a report to state lawmakers by September "identifying and recommending ways to improve the long-term academic and financial outlook of the center," according to the amendment.

"We can't continue to depend on the state and come down here arguing every year for the money," Myers said. "We need to think outside of the box."

Myers said the task force will include educators, elected officials and community activists selected by the Washington County delegation.

The group also will study the financial support the center receives from the local government and community. However, Warner said USM-H already has received $50,000 from Washington County for student scholarships, and another $25,000 from the county when the center opened in 2004 for marketing.

The City of Hagerstown also has contributed $25,000 for scholarships, and both the city and county offer maintenance services to the center.

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