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2009 September 8 - 12:00 am

Grim Budget News Greets La. Panel Mulling Education Overhaul

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A new commission charged with finding ways to overhaul Louisiana’s public college systems began its work with recommendations from Gov. Bobby Jindal and a grim review of the state’s budget woes.

Jindal told commission members they should seek ways to better align college training with Louisiana’s job needs, support what each campus does best, cut poor-performing programs and make LSU a nationally competitive flagship university.

Admission standards should be raised at four-year schools to encourage more enrollment at community college and technical school campuses, Jindal said. He suggested that would help reduce college dropout rates, keep students from amassing large student loan debt and direct students to training more in line with the jobs available in Louisiana.

The commission — called the Postsecondary Education Review Commission — is charged with finding efficiencies, suggesting cost-cutting moves and deciding how to restructure the four public college systems amid years of projected budget shortfalls and shrinking state funding for higher education.

The recommendations would have to be enacted by the Board of Regents, which oversees public colleges in Louisiana, and the state Legislature before they could take effect.

“We’re not looking for just another report to sit on a shelf. We cannot afford to just continue the status quo,” Jindal told the panel, nicknamed the “Tucker Commission” because it was created by the Legislature in a bill by House Speaker Jim Tucker.

Tucker said there’s “widespread belief” that the state’s colleges operate inefficiently, that Louisiana has too many universities and too many college boards and that the state has put too much emphasis on four-year colleges — and not enough on the two-year schools.

He urged panel members to be bold in their recommendations.

“We need you to tell us like it is. . . .We need you to take a two-by-four, if that’s what is necessary, and smack us across the face,” Tucker said.

The panel’s report is due by Feb. 12 to the Board of Regents.

Higher education funding accounts for a third of Louisiana’s discretionary spending. With budget shortfalls projected to top $900 million next year and $1.9 billion a year later, that puts colleges at risk for deep cuts. The Tucker Commission was pitched as a way to find targeted ways to cut higher education without irreparably damaging the schools.

Public colleges are vulnerable to budget cuts because they have few pools of state money protected either by state law or the state constitution. The schools were cut nearly $120 million this year — about a 7 percent drop in state funding — to help balance the state’s $28 billion-plus budget. The higher education budget is nearly $2.8 billion this year.

University leaders from Kansas and Maryland said their colleges had saved money by contracting for meal services and groundskeeping, forming purchasing pools among campuses, merging administrative functions, centralizing payroll operations, sharing educational materials among universities and increasing online and distance learning opportunities for students.

The 13-member Tucker Commission includes national and regional higher education experts, two Jindal appointees, two legislative appointees, the chairman of the Board of Regents and the heads of the four university systems who are nonvoting members. The commission plans monthly meetings.

After introductions, the commission got a crash course in Louisiana’s budget woes. The state’s income has declined amid a drop in oil and gas prices, the national recession and a list of tax breaks lawmakers have doled out in the last few years.

Ray Stockstill, director of management and budget in Jindal’s Division of Administration, said the state is estimated to be short $939 million of what it needs to continue the current services and meet inflationary costs in the 2010-11 fiscal year that begins in July 2010.

He said that is projected to worsen to a $1.9 billion shortfall a year later, when the federal stimulus money plugged into Louisiana’s budget falls away and the state’s Medicaid match rate shrinks.

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