Legislature to vote on more funding for community colleges

Published 2:28 pm Sunday, March 18, 2007

The state’s community college leaders have gone to bat for their institutions, and it has paid off.

State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said Friday that legislators were swayed by the successes the two-year colleges presented during the legislative session, which continues to April 1.

“You have to give credit to the community colleges,” Johnson said. “They have shown the good products and shown why we should fund them. It’s hard to say no when they are doing such a good job.”

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The final vote has not been taken. The coming week will tell, Johnson said. “I can say it is a solid piece of funding,” he said of the bills that include money for institutions such as Copiah-Lincoln Community College, which has a campus in Natchez.

“To say anything else would be premature at this time, before the completion of the conference committees,” he said.

Saturday is the deadline for conference reports on appropriations and revenue bills to be filed. At that time, all state agencies will have a better idea about their budgets for the coming fiscal year, said Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez.

“By constitutional mandate, we can’t pass any revenue or appropriation bill within a week before sine die,” Dearing said, using the term used to denote the closing of a session without setting a date for future assembling.

“Sometimes deadlines are extended on paper, but we don’t get paid any more or stay any longer,” Dearing said.

“All of the state agencies by 8 p.m. next Saturday will know what has been allocated to their agencies,” he said.

Because bills are in conference, no legislator wanted to suggest the amount of funding that can be expected, but Johnson and Dearing believe the community colleges will get significant increases.

That is good news for Co-Lin, said Ronnie Nettles, executive vice president of the Wesson-based college and a former dean of the Natchez campus.

“We’re optimistic that it will put us one step closer to where we ought to be,” Nettles said.

“There’s a three–year plan to bring us more in line with the K-12 and IHL (institutes of higher learning). And it’s a moving target,” he said.

The goal is to get funding for the community colleges at what is known as mid-level — that is, lying between the universities and the K-12 funding for items such as teacher salaries, said Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb.

“A lot of our students attend these colleges. So it’s important we get these funds. We’re working hard on the midlevel funding,” Mims said.

“I think both Houses want that to happen. The community colleges have been cut for so long,” he said.

Nettles agreed. “For the last five or six years, we have lost funding. We were not keeping pace with the increases in K-12 and IHL,” he said. “I think it was a matter of priority, and I can understand that. K-12 is the foundation and has to come first. There was just not enough money to keep us where we used to be.”

The point the Community Colleges are trying to reach is based on the midpoint of average per pupil cost, Nettles said.

“For example, the cost to educate a community college student would fall between what it would cost to educate a student enrolled in public schools and a student enrolled at a regional university like Alcorn or Delta State,” he said. “We are obviously not trying to get our total funding between K-12 and colleges.”

Per capita funding by the state, based on 2005 figures, shows $4,158 budged per public school student in K-12. Public universities received $5,473 per student. Community colleges received $2,645 per student.

Mims said that 66 percent of the state budget has gone to education at the three levels.

“Of that, 49 percent of the budget went to K-12, leaving 17 percent to split between IHL and community colleges,” Mims said.

“Over the years, community colleges have been slighted. Teachers’ salaries have not gone up. Professors’ salaries have not gone up,” he said.

Mims said community colleges are important not just for the opportunities they afford many students but also as contributors to economic development.

“When you’re trying to recruit industry, they want to know what kind of training you have,” he said.

Mims said midlevel funding is easy to figure out by looking at figures showing IHL salaries and K-12 salaries.

But the proposed adjustment in funding among the educational institutions includes more than salaries alone.

“There also is general support funding,” Mims said. “We’ve also passed a general bond bill for construction or fixing up of buildings. The bond bill designates money to each community college and each senior university and also affects funding at Alcorn (State University, which has a campus at Natchez),” Mims said.

Rep. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, said the state demonstrate that it values its community colleges.

“Community colleges are a very important part of our education systems,” Butler said. “A lot of our children go to the community college first. They are colleges for the community, and the children can go there without leaving home.”

Again, it is too early to put figures to the increases, as the bills are in the hands of conference committees and differ from House to Senate and will emerge for final recommendation by Saturday.

However, Nettles said he is pleased that both the House and Senate versions of the increases for community colleges are “well above recent years.”

Nettles said he is encouraged by the passage of another bill that states intention but has no funding attached to it. “It recognizes the need and states what the Legislature will try to do in the next three years,” he said.

An increase in operational expenses is included in the funding and will make a big difference for the coming year, Nettles said.

“This allows us to increase funding for our libraries, for our computer labs — just to pay the power bills,” he said.