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W.Va. crafting long-term higher ed funding plan

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – West Virginia officials are putting the final touches on a plan that aims to end the state’s piecemeal approach to funding growth and upkeep at its public colleges and universities.

“We need to move-away from this one-time funding,” Dennis Taylor, vice chancellor for administration at the Higher Education Policy Commission, told lawmakers last week.

The draft report he presented calls on the Legislature to take the lead role in finding the money to renovate or construct new buildings for higher education’s academic programs.

This role would require lawmakers to earmark a specific funding source, likely regular lottery revenue.

Besides staying stable over time, such changes in funding could allow officials to cut the capital fees that students now pay to cover bond payments.

The proposal would also have the Legislature guarantee annual funding for specific bond sales. It cites the scheduled 2010 payoff of bonds sold in 1997 for education, science and other projects. The payoff will free up $10 million from the lottery for annual payments toward a new bond issue once that bond is retired.

Until recently, $10 million in annual payments on a bond issue could generate up to $160 million for use on projects. The draft does not suggest a new estimate, citing ongoing uncertainly in financial markets.

This bond sale would benefit the state’s four-year institutions. But a majority of all additional new bond issues should focus instead on West Virginia’s economic development goals, the draft recommends. It notes legislation passed this year that aimed to encourage research and expanded programs in science, technology, engineering and math.

Higher education officials realize that limited revenues, and possible future financial turmoil, means that the colleges and universities should “scrutinize bonding proposals carefully.”

“These decisions bind us for 20, 30 years. They need to be taken very seriously,” Taylor said. “There’s a recognition that the Legislature cannot solve all of higher education’s funding problems.”

Toward that end, the draft calls on the four-year institutions to foot the bill for building or renovating “auxiliary” facilities: dorms, parking garages, student services centers and athletic buildings. But it leaves that burden on the state government for the two year community and technical colleges, reasoning that they “typically are limited and inextricably linked to education and general facilities.”

Lawmakers have gradually granted these two-year schools independence, as most had been off-shoots of four-year institutions. The draft advises that the Legislature subsidize their base budgets until they pay off any pending bond debts. But in exchange, these schools should cut tuition accordingly, it recommends.

The report also includes proposals for discouraging tuition hikes at four-year schools, such as by allowing them to increase a recommended cap on capital spending if they charge students rates below that of peers. Lawmakers appear receptive to such steps to limit the burden on students.

“We get an ‘F’ in affordability, and this is the point that explains that,” said Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.

Higher education officials expect to present a final report to legislators during their monthly interim meetings that precede the 60-day regular session, which starts in February.

West Virginia has 10 public four-year institutions, including six designated as universities, and a school of osteopathic medicine. The recently created Community and Technical College System features 10, two-year schools.

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