Lawmakers Work to Avoid State Takeover of Texas Southern

Black statehouse legislators are rushing to create legislation that would avoid a governor-appointed conservator from taking the helms of the financially troubled Texas Southern University in Houston.

Financial gaffes and mismanagement led Texas Gov. Rick Perry to call for the resignations of the historically Black college’s board of trustees. In its place Perry wants a conservator, a sole person to be in charge of fiscal decisions. Such a move would jeopardize the school’s accreditation.

“We want the governor to support a solution that accomplishes the goals of dealing with his concerns of operation and fiscal management. But at the same time we don’t want the solution to that to undercut the academic credentials of the university,” says state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, whose district includes TSU.

Coleman and other members of the Black caucus — who argue that conservatorship is not the answer — are working with Perry’s office. On Thursday, Coleman said representatives are writing a new provision that would exclude a conservator from stepping in during a crisis at a state educational institution.

State lawmakers have the support of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who told The Houston Chronicle she wants the U.S. Department of Education to intervene because conservatorship would allegedly violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and impose “undue burdens on Black students.”

The provision would instead require an administrative improvement plan. He did not give a specific timeline as to when the language would be introduced. The window for passing bills in the statehouse has passed so it would have to be an emergency item.

“What we’re working on is writing a new provision and law that deals with differences between institutions of higher education and state agencies,” Coleman says. Perhaps a chancellor-like figure would be the alternative, he adds.

A conservator would put TSU out of compliance with accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges in Schools. A board of regents is required for membership. Incompliance means degrees wouldn’t be recognized and students would not be eligible for financial aid.

“It’s unusual to go from good standing to loss of membership, but it is an option,” says Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS. She says no institution under the association’s umbrella has ever gone into conservatorship. The association is waiting to see what decision is ultimately handed down from Perry.

TSU officials say the school is the nation’s second largest HBCU with 11,400 students. The governor called for the board of regents to resign; all but three have done so. According to the Associated Press, the school’s athletic program was $2 million over budget.

Meanwhile, TSU’s former chief financial officer, Quintin Wiggins, is on trial on charges of misusing university funds to buy furniture, landscaping and a security system for the home of former president Priscilla Slade. A grand jury also indicted Slade, a former accounting professor, and two other administrators. Slade’s trial starts in August.

A university spokeswoman declined to comment on a possible conservator.

“TSU is awaiting the decision of the governor. We appreciate leaders throughout the community looking at the best possible means to do what it needs to do [to get] on the right track,” says spokeswoman Gayle Barge.

Earlier this year, Perry established a TSU advisory committee to review the school’s financial condition. It suggested that the school should be placed under strict financial oversight with regular audits. The Texas Legislature should also provide emergency funding to complete the 2007 fiscal year, the report says.

TSU alumna and Judge Zinetta Burney served on the committee; the possibility of a conservator alarms her. The committee advised against one.

“If I were a student, I would give it [attending] a second thought,” she says. “When you have universities that don’t have a lot of support from alumni and outside sources, they have financial issues…Many of major universities have funding from private sources — not the case with most HBCUs. Still, that does not relieve state of Texas from properly funding.”

A copy of a letter the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Perry can be found at http://www.house.gov/list/press/tx09_green/070419.html.

–Natalie Y. Moore



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