Funding formula could hit colleges hard

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 21, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers weighing budget cuts to colleges said Friday they worry that plans to rework the formula that divvies dollars among the schools would disproportionately hit some institutions with cuts.

The new formula would reward schools based on certain performance benchmarks — like student graduation rates, research work, curriculum costs and skills training for high-need job areas — rather than doling out state dollars solely based on student enrollment.

Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen said a phase-in of the new formula will begin with the start of the next budget year on July 1, at the same time the colleges are proposed for $219 million in cuts.

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‘‘It is important that we reward not just enrollment, but also results. People like you have told me you wanted that,’’ Clausen told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Lawmakers backed the reworking of the formula to tie it to performance standards. But that was before the state faced a hefty budget shortfall, a $1.3 billion predicted drop in state general fund revenue next year.

In his $26.7 billion budget proposal, Gov. Bobby Jindal recommended a $2.6 billion higher education spending plan, with $219 million in college cuts. Lawmakers combed through Jindal’s proposed education cuts for the first time Friday. They will devise a final version of next year’s budget during the legislative session that begins April 27.

Lawmakers questioned whether the new funding formula would place heavier cuts on some colleges while sparing others.

Rep. Nick Gautreaux, D-Meaux, said he wanted to make sure the technical college campuses weren’t penalized for having lower graduation rates if the training they provided helped people find jobs.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said the formula changes could be devastating to a college in his area, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, and asked about reworking the cuts to be more evenly distributed among campuses.

‘‘Across-the-board cuts are not always in the best interest of the enterprise we’re trying to serve,’’ Clausen said.

Clausen said the presidents of the four public university systems in Louisiana agreed to the new formula and helped shape it. Jindal pushed for the revamped higher education formula.

Sen. John Alario, D-Westwego, said lawmakers want more detail about how the proposed cuts would fall across campuses, a plan Clausen said still was being developed but would be provided before lawmakers craft a final version of the 2009-10 budget.

‘‘None of this is going to be easy. None of this is going to cover everybody’s priorities. If I could wave a wand and create money, I would,’’ Clausen said.

Schroder said the state needs to consider consolidating schools as a way to trim costs, a proposal raised by several lawmakers in recent weeks.

Schroder questioned, however, whether Clausen and the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education in Louisiana, would be willing to make such ‘‘tough decisions’’ internally — prompting a sharp response from Clausen.

‘‘You pay me a lot of money to make decisions. If at some point, you feel like I can’t make those decisions, you need to call my board and tell them,’’ Clausen replied.

‘‘I don’t mind making decisions and disagreeing with friends,’’ she added.

Earlier Friday, the committee reviewed the $5 billion budget proposed by Jindal for elementary and secondary education, which includes a cut of $141 million. Money for school counselors, social workers, speech pathologists, psychologists and other programs would be cut.

Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said $379 million in federal stimulus money that flows directly to the local school districts could fill in those gaps.

But Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, said Pastorek doesn’t control how the districts spend those stimulus dollars, so he can’t assure the state funding cuts would be offset with federal money.