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HBCU Preservation Bill Dies in Congress

HBCU Preservation Bill Dies in Congress
By Charles Dervarics

Despite a flurry of last-minute activity that raised the hopes of Black college leaders, Congress in late November fell short in a final attempt to approve an HBCU historic building preservation bill before lawmakers adjourned for 2002.

In a complex series of negotiations in the waning days of the 107th Congress, the Senate on Nov. 20 broke a logjam and approved a bill to set aside funds for historic preservation at historically Black colleges and universities. But the bill was slightly different from a measure approved by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, and House leaders opted not to consider the Senate alternative before adjournment the next day.

The roller-coaster week had given new hope to a seven-year legislative effort to create a new program for HBCUs. “Time ran out,” says Hope Derrick, an aide to Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a prime sponsor of the HBCU bill in the House. While acknowledging disappointment, Derrick says advocates can take the Senate vote as a note of encouragement heading into 2003.

“There was headway this year,” she says, “and we’ve been working on this for seven years.”

Clyburn’s bill, H.R. 1606, cleared the House this summer after languishing due to concerns about cost. A report from the General Accounting Office has said it may cost $755 million to rehabilitate HBCU buildings and — in part to limit funding concerns — Clyburn’s bill did not set specific funding levels. Instead, his bill would allow lawmakers to set program funding on an annual basis.

That approach ran into trouble in the Senate, however, where at least one Republican leader wanted annual funding limits. As a result, sponsors agreed to limit funding to $10 million in the law’s first two years. That plan passed the Senate but died in the House as lawmakers wrapped up work to adjourn for the year.

“We came very close,” says Derrick. Even with Republican gains in the mid-term elections, Congress this fall showed there is bipartisan support for the preservation concept, she adds.

A small federal program to promote HBCU historic preservation began in 1996 and recently expired after providing about $29 million in aid. That program requires colleges to provide 50 percent of preservation costs, a formula that many HBCUs found difficult to attain, Clyburn said. The House Democrat’s bill would lower the match to 30 percent.

About 712 historic properties on HBCU campuses may require restoration, and more than 529 are listed, or are eligible for listing, on the National Register of historic sites, the legislation states.

For Black college leaders, the bill’s last-minute dramatics drew a mixed response, with some noting that the debate over HBCU historic preservation has waged for years.

“We were quite enthusiastic about the (original) program, but it was never funded at a high enough level,” says Dr. David Swinton, president of Benedict College in South Carolina.

Benedict recently received a small federal match grant of approximately $50,000 to help restore a campus chapel, he says. But with the lack of movement in Washington, the college also has gone its own way on historic preservation. During the past five years, Benedict has raised $4 million for high-priority projects, Swinton adds.

But not all HBCUs can undertake such efforts. “There are still a sizable number of colleges that need assistance,” he says.

Historic preservation also will be a key issue for the president’s advisory committee on HBCUs, says Dr. Ernest Holloway, president of Langston University in Oklahoma and a member of the advisory panel. The panel is set to meet early in 2003.

Even though the bill fell short of enactment this fall, progress made in both the House and the Senate may be a good signal for next year. “I think it has great potential for getting passed when they reconvene,” Holloway says. “The need is still there, and I believe the support is there.”

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