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Tamela Baker: Del. Bohanan, keep your mitts off USMH

March 13, 2012

My grandmother wanted badly to be a nurse. But she never had the opportunity to go to nursing school.

And that was a shame, because she had a natural gift for it. That her dream was never fulfilled was a loss both for her and for all the people for whom she would have cared.

But none of my grandparents had the chance to go to college — one grandfather became a bus driver and the other was a farmer and laborer. Yet all of them wanted me to go to college. My father was adamant; I was going to college, period.

He’d gone to college, for a while. But it wasn’t easy. He eventually quit and took a job for some much-needed income. Then he got married. Then he became a father. But he always wanted to go back to school, and eventually he did.

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It still wasn’t easy. After lots of night classes, sacrifices and schedule juggling, he finally graduated from college — the year before I did. Now in his third term on the school board in Wetzel County, W.Va., he’s determined that every student in that county who wants to go to college has the tools to prepare for it.

The whole family is determined that his grandchildren will to go to college, because they’ve expressed goals that require a higher education to reach. One of them, like her great-grandmother, talks about being a nurse.

I want your children to go to college, too, if they choose, which brings me to Del. John Bohanan — whose perpetual quest to gut the University System of Maryland center in Hagerstown is, to use one of his own phrases, “a little bit puzzling.”

Bohanan represents St. Mary’s County, one of the 15 richest counties in the nation. His constituents have a lower property tax rate than ours (0.857 compared to 0.982), a much lower unemployment rate (averaging 5.9 percent for the last three years compared with 9.9 percent here), a lower cost of living index (86.8 compared to 111.6) and a median household income that is consistently $30,000 higher. And college students in St. Mary’s County have had more options than students here for eons.

In fact, by any economic barometer you choose to consult, we’re not in the same league. We don’t even come close. But despite everything his district has going for it, he can’t stand that the State of Maryland is investing $1.9 million a year to give your kids access to higher education.

His excuse is that a University of Maryland center in his county — which operates under a different model than ours — gets a lot less state money per student than is being spent here.

On the surface, that might sound like a legitimate gripe. But you don’t have to scratch far before it falls apart.

Any new program will cost more per student until it’s established, for one blatantly obvious reason: You have to provide a classroom and pay a professor whether there are 10 students in a class or 30. The better established the program becomes, the more students are attracted and the more that cost-per-student ratio goes down. But our center’s doors had barely opened before Bohanan took aim.

From the first 74 students enrolled in January 2005, enrollment expanded to 184 by the following year and surged to 236 in 2008. The trend was projected to continue.

But in 2008, we started feeling the full effect of the economic downturn, and Bohanan started threatening funding for the center. And enrollment started leveling off.

What a coincidence.

The center hadn’t had a chance to get off the ground before Bohanan had students wondering if the programs they started would be available long enough to finish. And he hasn’t stopped since.

Bohanan insists this harassment is “just a matter of equity.” His latest assault is a bill to establish a funding formula that would cut the center’s funding by 53 percent, and would cut funding to a similar center in Montgomery County — the second richest county in the nation — by 16.4 percent.

Bohanan and I apparently have considerably different definitions for “equity.”

He also insists he’s not trying to force the center to close. But if he isn’t, he deserves an Oscar. Even if his efforts are stopped — again — he’s hurting enrollment, and therefore keeping the cost-per-student higher, just by threatening funding. The legislative report on his bill proved what we already knew:

Bohanan’s relentless bullying is scaring away potential students.

But if enrollment hasn’t expanded as planned, it hasn’t lost ground either. That enrollment has grown in spite of Bohanan and the economy speaks volumes about its viability, and is in fact the best argument for keeping funding steady. We could argue all year about how a baseball team affects the local economy, but the university center is one asset that can’t help but produce young people who will contribute to this state rather than being a burden on it. We get little enough from the state — and I, for one, am not buying for a minute that this small investment in Washington County is keeping a penny out of St. Mary’s County.

The badgering of the university center must stop.

Now.

And for good.

Tamela Baker is a former Herald-Mail reporter and editor.

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