Field Trip!

by Jeremy Alford

From budget cuts to gun control, professors, students, chancellors and school boards will have plenty of reasons to visit Baton Rouge this year. Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to stuff Louisiana’s colleges and universities into a time machine and turn the dial back to 1999. At least that’s how LSU Chancellor Michael V. Martin described Jindal’s executive budget last week when $219 million in cuts were assigned to higher education. “It will be like the flagship agenda never happened,” Martin says. “The cut will likely cause us to fall back to where we were eight or 10 years ago.”

In Lake Charles, education officials contend Jindal’s time machine will reach even further back. McNeese State University President Bob Hebert, for instance, says the scheduled cuts are similar to those doled out during the early 1980s. “For a decade following the cuts, we continued to pay the price because of the loss of programs, deteriorating buildings, negative impacts on recruiting, retention, and graduation rates,” Hebert says, predicting a similar path should Jindal’s budget stay intact.

UL-Lafayette President Joseph Savoie is lobbying the business community. He argues that UL attracts roughly $50 million in external research funding each year — money that would evaporate under Jindal’s proposal. “That money is used to pay salaries of people who live here,” he says. “It is used to purchase equipment, supplies, and services from local and state vendors. So, when the university’s research budget is cut, the Acadiana and state economies feel the sting.”

If this is the drama higher ed officials are directing in their own communities, then lawmakers can expect quite a show when the regular session convenes on April 27 in Baton Rouge. To help soften the blow, Jindal held a press conference last week to announce that roughly $99 million from the state’s remaining surplus will be used for infrastructure projects at the state’s two-year and four-year colleges. The money will be used on projects that are already planned or under way. Many of the projects will begin next year and most will be completed by 2011.

Locally, there are a couple of projects on the list, like $6 million for the Early Childhood Development Center, $3 million for renovations to Girard Hall and another $1.5 million to upgrade Burke Hawthorne Hall. But overall, it’s just a sweetener that Jindal hopes will help Louisiana’s campuses swallow his proposed cuts. While he is directing $99 million in surplus funds to infrastructure projects, it pales in comparison to the $1 billion of backlogged projects.

It’s certainly enough to keep education officials busy this session, but by no means is it the only issue of contention on the list. For the second time in as many years, Louisiana’s colleges and universities will publicly oppose legislation that would allow individuals with permits to carry concealed weapons on campuses.

When Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, the former sheriff of Plaquemines Parish, introduced his bill during the 2008 regular session, the ensuing debate packed committee rooms with student government representatives and college officials. While many proponents made an appearance as well, the voice of opposition was overwhelming and the proposal died before a hearing before the full House could even be held.

Nicholls President Stephen Hulbert personally held a press conference in Thibodaux during the early phases of the policy discussion touting a resolution passed by him and other University of Louisiana System chancellors asking the legislature to torpedo the measure. According to Nicholls spokesperson Graham Harvey, the same level of opposition can be expected from university officials again during coming months. “The administration’s position hasn’t changed a bit,” Harvey says.

From the local level, school board members and parents of middle and elementary school students will be making the trek to Baton Rouge as well. For starters, Jindal has already said that the usual funding increases for public schools meant to keep pace with inflation are not on the horizon. Normally, lawmakers approve a boost of funding to the tune of 2.75 percent. This year, though, Jindal obviously has other plans for the $66 million.

As for school boards, state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek has been pushing a plan that would literally shake the boards to their foundations. He wants to change the way boards manage their districts and the process used for terminating school superintendents. Term limits have even been discussed.

But when the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met last week, the public pressure was intense enough to suggest that many of Pastorek’s progressive ideas may already be dead for the session. Instead, another task force may be formed by the Legislature to study the topics.

Although Jindal chiefly campaigned on ethics reform in 2007, he also promised a gold standard for Louisiana’s education system. He promised quite a bit and vowed to bring the Bayou State to the top of all the good lists. Jindal did not, however, promise a scenario like we see today. To be certain, he’ll be reminded of that a number of times during the upcoming session as students, professors, and parents pack the state capitol